The Archive Lady: Finding Photographs of My Ancestors
Mary in Wisconsin asks: “I have been watching your Legacy Family Tree Webinars and your advice has been a great help to me. I am trying to locate photographs of some of my ancestors, can you tell me in what types of record sources could I possibly locate photographs in an archive?”
Mary has asked a great question that I suspect many genealogists wrestle with while doing genealogy research. I know I am constantly looking for photographs of the ancestors for whom I have no family photos and I would really like to see what they looked like. An archive can be a great source for finding our ancestors’ photographs.
First, let’s remember that an archive can be any repository that collects and preserves historical and genealogical documents, photographs and artifacts. It is very important that we keep this in mind as we are searching for an archive to locate those ancestor photographs. We should be checking libraries, county archives, state archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, university archives and museums.
Once we have located the local archive where the records are located, we need to understand what record sources could contain family photographs. Some record sources are:
These files are a fantastic source for finding one-of-a-kind documents and photographs. Vertical files are usually arranged in file folders and those folders are then stored in filing cabinets. The files are usually labeled by surname or subject name and arranged alphabetically. The archivist should have an index of what files are in their vertical files collection, so be sure to ask for that index. The photographs will be housed in archival sleeves filed right along with other documents, newspaper clippings and miscellaneous ephemera.
Another great place to locate photographs is in manuscript collections. A manuscript collection consists of boxes filled with file folders that are then filled with documents, photographs and ephemera. Quite literally, anything can be found in a manuscript collection. The box-by-box, folder-by-folder listing of what is in each manuscript collection is explained in what is known as a finding aid. The finding aid is the “road map” to the collection and will help you to know if the collection contains photographs. The archivist should have an index of their manuscript collections. The collections are usually named for the person who donated the materials or by the organization that donated their records.
Many of our archives have wonderful photograph collections. While it is always a good idea to check vertical files and manuscript collections for our ancestors’ photographs, they could also be found in a large photograph collection at the archives. Archived photograph collections should come with an index that the archivist can provide to you at the facility or it might be located on their website. In the index, you might find files of photographs by surname or by subject name. Searching for your surnames in the index might help you find that long lost photograph.
Before you travel to that archive, you might just find what you are looking for online. Many of our archives have made great strides in digitizing their photograph collections and putting them online for the public to view. In fact, many times the photographs are the first to be digitized and made available to the public. Be sure to check the archives website, Flikr Page or Instagram page to see if they have shared their photograph collections. Also, check to see if the archive has a Facebook page that they regularly share photographs in their collections or photographs that have been recently donated.
Don’t give up looking for that ancestor’s photograph, there are photos being discovered everyday and donated to the local archive. Contact the local archives in the area where your ancestors lived and you may be very pleased to find photographs of them in the archived collections.
Legacy Family Tree Webinars and Quick Guides
Scrapbooks! Do you want to know how to find scrapbooks about your ancestors or do you have scrapbooks that you own and would like to know how to preserve them? Get my latest Legacy Family Tree Webinar and QuickGuide:
Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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