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Unless your ancestor was famous - or infamous - you may be hard pressed to find a photograph of them online, at least not when you type their name into a search engine. But scratch at the surface and you may find images, in published materials and records in digital and print sources. This guide will help you find and explore collections online, and at The New York Public Library that might - just might - include an unseen image of your ancestor. You may find your ancestor looking back at you from photographs in family files, digitized records of immigration, published local histories, school yearbooks, criminal mug shots, or the pages of newspapers and trade journals.
The key to finding these images is to first learn a little about your ancestor. What where their life events? Did they naturalize? Did they serve in the military? If they married, was there an announcement in a local newspaper? Were any of these events photographed? And if so, where might those photographs be? This guide is designed to help researchers find images of people in published and archive sources available at The New York Public Library and online.
The final section is designed to help you identify people in photographs.
A life in pictures
When and where did our ancestors have their picture taken? Family photograph albums may include formal portraits or candid snapshots, but what if there is no family album? Where else might one go looking for a photograph of our forbears? Possible sources described in this guide include:
- High school and college yearbooks: If you have an idea where your ancestor went to high school or college, then you might find them in a yearbook.
- Immigration records: Photographs of people can be found in naturalization records and various travel documents, including passport and visa applications.
- Military records, and regimental photographs and histories might feature your ancestors' time in service.
- Identification cards, trade journals, licenses, and buttons may feature an image.
- Local histories may include scrapbooks, county maps and atlases, political ephemera, and the publications of societies, clubs, and organizations that include images of people.
- Newspapers include photographs of people returning from military service, taking part in sporting events, celebrating anniversaries, getting married, coming of age, speaking at political rallies, appearing in court, winning awards, and so on.
- Mugshots and other criminal records can be a rich source of photographic documentation.
- Third and fourth cousins you have never met may be uploading images of your ancestors to public member trees in genealogy databases.
The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy collects publications documenting American history on the national, state, and local levels, including extensive holdings on New York City history. The Division has a renowned collection of family histories and other genealogical collections, with a particular focus on the New York region. Included in the collections are published works from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society library, photographs, vertical files, postcards, and other visual ephemera.