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Using Local and Family History Photographs to Tell the Stories of Your Ancestors

Beyond the Library

The potential for finding photos is as limitless as your research determination and creativity.

Wilbur and Orville Wright papers. Eleanor and Billy Prentiss and Enyeart Crume, Wright neighbors. Between 1901 and 1928. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Start with your family. Find out who the collectors are. Ask who received the photos and family papers from previous generations. Were they kept in the family or donated to a museum? Did your great-grandmother's collection stay intact or was it divided between her children or siblings?

Don't set your limits to immediate family. Sometimes distant cousins were recipients because of interest or circumstance. Also keep in mind that your grandfather's brother might have been a more meticulous record keeper than your grandfather. Maybe both of them have the same picture in their albums, but maybe your granduncle's version is identified and your grandfather's is not.

Expand your search to friends and neighbors. If a fire or flood destroyed your archives, try tracing the family lines of neighbors from Census records, classmates, fellow congregants, co-workers, or military buddies. Just like you do today, your ancestors exchanged and shared pictures with people who mattered to them in all parts of their lives. You might just find your relative's likeness perfectly preserved by an old girlfriend or Sunday school teacher.

Johnson, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Interior view of library reading room with male and female students sitting at tables, reading, at the Tuskegee Institute. Circa 1902. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Reach out to the communities where your ancestors lived and interacted. Institutional archives may remain in the custody of the church, school, club, or business. Or they may have been donated to a local historical society or library. Find out where the records are and make inquiries. These collections are often rich with photographs of people, places, and events that will add substantially to your research.

In the digital age, it is easier than ever for photographs to be shared online. You may discover that the family, neighbors, or repositories you are reaching out to have posted some or all of their holdings to public web sites.

As you review these shared resources, be sure to consider the points raised in the Photographic Evidence section of this guide to evaluate the accuracy of the information.

Below is a selection of highlighted databases to demonstrate the kind of material you may find online.