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Picture This!

Photos and other pictorial items can help you visualize you family's history.


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Picture this! . . . or, how I learned to love using photographs for genealogical research.

A short while ago, we discussed the concept and implementation of a "vertical file," which are kinds of research items that a library or archives may have which can be used for family research. What I will discuss now is the picture file is, what it is, how it is arranged, and why it's important for your research.

Part of nearly all such collections in a library, archives, history museum, or historian's office is something that is known as a picture file. They are what they sound like – a pictorial, visual representation of a person, place, or thing. They differ from maps in that respect because maps (generally) represent a physical place. Pictures are of people, families, buildings, canals, and many other subjects.

What are they? Most often they are 4 x 6 or 8 ½ x 11 inch photographs. But they can include tintypes, daguerreotypes, prints, etc. That are used to make representations of various items. They might also be postcards, although those are generally considered to be "vertical file" types of materials –except if they consist of postcards with actual photos on them.

Let me illustrate why they are so important. As of this writing it's the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Prior to that time period, such as the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, etc, there were no cameras. So any graphic representations we have are essentially drawings. Various articles discuss whether photography as we know it was begun about 1826, 1838, 1839, etc. But by the 1860s, for certain, there were photographers like Matthew Brady taking pictures to document the struggle.

There are photographs of Civil War soldiers in many libraries, archives, and museums across the country. With luck your ancestor had his or her photograph taken, either as part of the unit in which they were serving or perhaps as an individual. (Not all soldiers are pictured, by any means). In my own case, a soldier was married to his wife after the war, in 1866, and I have a copy of that picture. It's grainy, torn and so on, but it clearly shows these people who were responsible for my own existence. (Their descendant is just as bad looking as they are, but that's not important!)

Brief digression – this picture was known to me, and it vanished from the family's collection. One hundred and forty years later copies were found by a branch of the family that had moved from New York to California. When cousin so-and-so told me, I asked her to have a digital copy made and e-mail it to me. When I got it, I sent digital and hard copy prints to dozens of the relation so that this picture does not get lost again. A copy was given give to the city from which he served, and to the city where he died, for their research purposes.

But now we have that picture. Our subject's son served in the West fighting against various Native American tribes. His grandsons were in World War I, etc. And each of these generations has a picture of the men in uniform. Another illustration (pardon the pun) follows. A photo was found that said "father." It looked old, and had a Rochester, New York company's name on it. But what it turned out to be was a Rochester copy of a very old photo that was brought by an immigrant daughter to Rochester, of her father who was born in 1810. He died in 1870 in Germany, and never got to America. The photo was identified by a German descendant of that man who had the same picture in her house in Germany, where it had been passed down to her. She knew that story of the picture being taken to Rochester and a copy was sent back to Germany in the late 1800s.

The reason for telling this story is that genealogically significant pictures can be found almost anywhere. Not all are lucky enough to be found in a library.

But back to the article at hand. How does one collect and maintain them? Generally, pictures are donated to a library or organization. They should ask the donor to identify them, with people, places, and time. Libraries should also have a pre-existing Deed of Gift form, which allows housing, reproduction, reformatting, and display of the donation. They should be described for access, and shelved in an environmentally acceptable place using appropriate archival materials. Our own library shelved our photo collection for years in extremely crowded, open four-drawer file cabinets that were freely accessible to the public, in a very warm area, and with no sleeving. They also allowed photocopying of the pictures. Not good at all. That is no longer done, but it took until the late 1990s to get the staff and money to process the collection as it should have been decades before.

So, be prepared to see things in great – or terrible – condition. At the very least, bring a camera and ask if you can photograph the picture., or if they will make a digital scan for you.

How are they cataloged and accessed? Most often a researcher will find pictures filed by subject or name. If there are more than a few pictures, chances are that they are arranged that way and not individually identified in a guide to a catalog, although they may be on the back of the photo itself. What this means, is that one has to go to an archives and go through them one by one. It would be great if every institution could catalog them down to the individual level, but that it very unlikely to occur. And if you do decide to donate them, please, dear goodness, do not glue or tape them into a scrapbook!

Libraries and other organizations have started to digitize and put these photos on to the web.

For examples of this see the following:

Rochester Images

New York Heritage Digital Collections

University of Washington Digital Collections

UCLA Library Digital Collections

Digital Collections at the Connecticut State Library

Finger Lakes and Genesee Heritage (FLAG Heritage)

Hudson River Valley Heritage

NY State Military Images

Why are these important? Because perhaps Grandma studied as a nurse, and her graduation photo is in a hospital's collection. It pays to cast a wide net. Remember that not all people in a photo might be identified and your personal knowledge may come in handy, identifying your relative.

Just for a start, Google the terms "library digital collections" and specify a state or town if you wish, and see what you can find.

Of course there is great discussion how to handle them. A recent article abut this appeared in the online Eastman's Online Genealogical Newsletter: The Myth of Wearing White Glovesl, which refers to the article, Misperceptions about White Gloves.

And how do you find the supplies to take care of these items? I did a quick Google search and found the following references for such supplies:; photo sleeves for sale at;; and Read up on what best practices are. The Internet has made it much easier to find such information.

Another digression – copyright is a very important matter, and for matters related to this I refer the reader to an acknowledged expert in the field, who has done a chart showing a summary – that is Peter Hirtle, of Cornell University; his web page is, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Copyright is a huge arena to discuss. Basically (and lawyers, do not hold me to this), anything before 1923 can be used in your Great American Family History as it's in the public domain. That means anything down to then, such as Civil War, World War I, etc can be used to illustrate your books.

Of course, any photo that you yourself take is something that you have the copyright to. Your pics of Aunt Tillie and Uncle Joe and last years' family reunion belong to you. But, if it's photos they give to you, the copyright belongs to them.

All of this to say, that what you find in a library or archives or museum probably can be used without fear of legal action against you. But not always. Your mileage may vary.

How are they being digitized? Most often people just slap them onto a fifty-dollar scanner and hope for the best. Even those have increased in capability, but if you are going to make more or less archival copies, it's advisable to scan at 300, 40,0 or even 600 dots per inch. By doing this, photos can be made available 7-24-365, and the originals and be kept safe in properly configured storage areas.

What are the uses for genealogical and historical research?

The most obvious use is that you can see what your family looked like and what places they lived in, worshiped in, and what they saw in everyday life. Even seeing the kinds of clothes that they wore can tell you something about how much money they had, what they did for a living, how they dressed up for church and the like. Many things come into play such as if they pictures were taken by an outsider for news, by a family member, or in the course of an official function or military award.

I cannot keep myself from saying, Here's looking at you!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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