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Images of Our Ancestors: Published sources

A guide to finding images of people online and at The New York Public Library.

Local history collections can include published and unpublished resources: newspapers, yearbooks, family histories, family files, and the records of various local government, business, and societies and organizations, postcards, clippings, scrapbooks, and photographs. 

In this section, we'll look at select examples of published local history sources that might include photographs of people. Published local histories can be about place (states, towns and villages, neighborhoods), founding families, local government, organizations, communities, buildings, cultural life, and more besides. Knowing what published sources might include an image of your ancestor means knowing something of that individual's life story. Where were they born? Where did they live? What did they do for a living? What organizations did they belong to? 

Sources

School yearbooks provide researchers with an opportunity to see what our ancestors looked like when they were younger, the classes they took, the societies they belonged to, and who their friends and classmates were. Yearbooks, like most collections of interest to genealogists, are scattered far and wide, in databases, on the internet, in libraries, family archives, and, of course, the school in question.

  • Ancestry Library Edition U.S. School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, is “an indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks from across the United States.” Search for youthful images of your ancestors in 450,000 yearbooks. See also Canada, Selected School Yearbooks, 1901-2010.
  • Search for year books in the NYPL Research catalog using the subject term [NAME OF SCHOOL] (New York, N.Y.) . For instance, Dewitt Clinton High School (New York, N.Y.)

Other collections

  • The Internet  Archive collection Yearbooks includes over 65,000 “compilations of the student body of high schools, colleges, academic institutions, and academies.” While the collection is smaller than that of Ancestry Library Edition, it does include yearbooks from the 19th century, some of which include photographs of students and faculty. Right is a page from the Bryn Mwar College Yearbook of 1928, that includes two images of the four time Oscar winning actress Katherine Houghton Hepburn (1907-2003).
  • Cyndi’s List, the genealogy link site, features a section Schools » Yearbooks and Annuals that includes links to school yearbooks.
  • The genealogy blog The Ancestor Hunt includes a post with links to school yearbooks that are free online. There is a separate section for New York yearbooks.
  • Brooklyn Public Library is home to the The Brooklyn Yearbook Collection, that “spans over 100 years of Brooklyn educational history. In addition to the class listings and photographs that are useful in genealogical research, the yearbooks provide a wealth of information about academics, clubs, athletic groups, and student activities in Brooklyn in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Ancestors and descendants of Dr. Sears Cabell & AThe Milstein Division is home to thousands of unique and published family histories, many that include images of people. You can search for family histories using the NYPL Research Catalog. Here's some tips for finding family histories:

  • Search the NYPL Catalog using a family name and the word family as a subject term ([family name] family). So, Sutton family histories would have the subject term Sutton Family. This works in most online library catalogs, including WorldCat.
  • You can use library catalogs to find the titles of family histories, especially those out of copyright, digitized by the HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, or Google books.
  • Genealogy databases, like FamilySearch and Heritage Quest (free at NYPL) have also digitized many family histories.

Many family histories are self published, semi-published, or in manuscript form, and have been donated to NYPL. Ancestors and descendants of Dr. Sears Cabell & Althaea Spalding Cabell / compiled by Eleanor Lobdell McVea (1977, right), for instance, is held in only three libraries in the United States. This title includes many photographs, and has been digitized by FamilySearch.

Family histories online

NYPL Research Catalog

Search for images of ancestors in thousands of family histories collected by the Milstein Division. Some of the titles have been digitized: the bibliographic record in the catalog will include a link a digital copy, if one is available.

Family Search Digital Library

The Family History Library is actively digitizing its family histories, local histories, and other collections to make them searchable and available online to researchers worldwide.

Includes digitized family histories from the Family History Library, Allen County Public Library, Arizona State Library, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Onondaga County Public Library, and The Midwest Genealogy Center, amongst others.

Heritage Quest

This genealogical database allows researchers to search U.S. Federal Census records, digitized family and local history books, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files and the Freedman's Bank Records (1865-1874), maps, and a wealth of other historical collections and research guides.

HathiTrust

HathiTrust is a partnership of academic and research institutions, offering a collection of millions of books digitized from libraries around the world, including family histories.

Internet Archive

A free digital library that includes 20 million books, and 3 million images, including family histories. Tip: look for the titles of books in library catalogs, then search for that title in the internet archive. Or search [family name] family as a topic.

Google Books

Search the world's most comprehensive index of full-text books.

You might find a photograph of your ancestor in a newspaper. Historical newspapers reflect the culture and events of the day, so you’ll see images of people captured in coverage of society news, weddings, anniversaries, sports events, high school and college graduations, retirements, award ceremonies, military service, and all manner of human interest stories.

For more information about researching historical newspapers at The New York Public Library, see the Milstein Division research guide 

Newspapers in Genealogy Research 

Tips for finding images of people in digitized historical newspapers

  • In newspaper databases, you can usually set the filter to search for photographs or images.
  • If you find an article about an ancestor in a newspaper database, be sure to click the whole page view, in case there is an accompanying photograph.
  • Photographs first began to appear in newspapers in the late 19th century - the first was the Daily Graphic, in 1880 - but were not common place until the 1930s. Before then you were more likely to see engravings or engravings taken from photographs. 
  • Local newspapers, like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, rather than national and international titles, like the New York Times, are more likely to feature photographs of ordinary people and their life events. 

Military: "Returning hero embraces son for first time: 1st Lt. George Dawson, 2222 Walbrook Avenue, joyfully embraces his son George. Jnr., as his wife Sarah watches." "Capt. Lester Hodgins 1535 Pulaski St. Baltimore, greets his boxer dog Prince'. (ProQuest Historical, Afro-American Baltimore, Md. 19 April 1952 p8). Did your answer serve during a military conflict? There may be an article in the local newspaper about their return.Jan Thoms marriage announcement Oct 27 1930

Examples, left to right (click image for larger view):

  •  "A Graduate and a Queen: Miss Mathilda Ketchum, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Ketchum, 6535 Evans Avenue, who is a member of the January graduation class of Eaglewood High School and has been elected Queen of the Englewood Saroines Prom. Miss Ketchum plans to attend the University of Illinois in the Fall.” (ProQuest Historical African-American Newspapers, Chicago Defender, January 27, 1940, p.16.)
  • "Sallie Jeffries, 59, chief consultant in Nursing, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Interior Department, retires after 30 years of Government service". (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Washington Post, October 15th, 1950, p.M10) Sallie Jeffries was formerly a nurse in World War One, and a volunteer for the Red Cross, as described elsewhere in this research guide.
  • "Returning hero embraces son for first time: 1st Lt. George Dawson, 2222 Walbrook Avenue, joyfully embraces his son George. Jnr., as his wife Sarah watches." "Capt. Lester Hodgins 1535 Pulaski St. Baltimore, greets his boxer dog Prince'. (ProQuest Historical African-American Newspapers, Afro-American Baltimore, Md. 19 April 1952 p8). Did your answer serve during a military conflict? There may be an article in the local newspaper about their return.
  • "Mrs. Willard Gibson Keller, Jnr. is the former Jean Thoms and is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Thoms of 292 Marlborough Road”. (Newspapers.com, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 27 1930, p.8). Knowing when your ancestor was married may help you find a photograph in a historical newspaper.

S Boyle Woodbury County Iowa 1902 from the Standard Atlas of Woodbury George Ogle and Company.The middle and later parts of the 19th century in the United States saw the development and rise in popularity of county maps and atlases. Paid for by subscription, county maps and atlases were cadastral (or plat) maps that described property ownership—and much more—in counties and the cities, towns, and villages therein. Later county atlases include photographs and other fascinating genealogical tidbits. The Standard atlas of Woodbury County, Iowa, published by George A. Ogle & Co. about 1902, is typical of the genre and includes

  • photographs of subscribers and their homes
  • advertisements for local businesses
  • a plat map describing property ownership
  • biographies of subscribers, which includes information about when they came to the county

Pictured right is one S. Boyles, full name Sanford Boyle[s], a farmer, born March 1859 (according to the 1900 U.S. Census), in Kansas. The same census tells us that his wife Mary was born 1864 in Iowa, and their children are Edward, born 1891; Myrtle, born 1895; and Sylvia, born 1897. It seems likely the little girl in the picture is one of his daughters. 

Map collections at NYPL include hundreds of county atlases: contact maps@nypl.org for help finding them.

For more information on research with county atlases, consult Using Maps for Genealogy Research, Part 4: Topographical Maps, and County Maps and Atlases

Mrs. Alice M.A. PicklerCounty histories

Similar to county atlases, county histories were popular from the late 19th century to early 20th century. Many were paid for by subscription, and may be known as "mug books,' because they often contain flattering histories and biographies of the counties and people they describe. You have to dig a little deeper to research the full history. But, they do often contain photographs of notable citizens, and founding families, along with the subscribers who paid a little extra to have their picture included.

Right, Mrs. Alice M.A. Pickler, from History of Faulk County, South Dakota,
together with biographical sketches of pioneers and prominent citizens, 1909
.

Access

Finding county histories in the catalog, particularly the "mug books'', in amongst more, shall we say, reputable local histories, can be challenging. This is where bibliographies come in handy, and they can be found in the NYPL Research catalog.

For instance:

United States -- History, Local -- Bibliography.

See also the subject terms:

[county name] County ([state]) - Biography, e.g. Will County (Ill.) - Biography, e.g. Genealogical and biographical record of Will County, Illinois, containing biographies of well known citizens of the past and present, 1900.

Many county histories predate 1923, and have been digitized by HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and others.

Further reading

Mug Books / Rhonda Frevert, Common Place : The Journal of American Life, 3.1 (2002).

Accessing Research Collections at The New York Public Library