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Giving It the Old College Try: Finding Your Ancestors in Yearbooks

Although yearbooks are limited in how much they can tell about an ancestor, a persistent genealogist who looks for yearbooks will be rewarded with information about their ancestor's student days and a picture to add to their collection.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Word Count: 1133 (approx.)
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My husband likes to remind me that I am approaching my 20th high school reunion. Once in a while when we get together with our old school friends, we talk about people from those days and break out the yearbooks so that we can all be clear about whom we are talking. That's when I like to look over my husband's yearbook and see all the notes various girls scribbled in the margins. Heck, I like to see what people wrote in my yearbooks, lots of notes that say things like "friends forever,"and for the life of me I can't remember who those friends were.

Yearbooks are not a new phenomenon. According to yearbook publisher, Lifetouch Publishing, yearbook types have been around since the 1600's when students acquired books filled with school memorabilia and hand written notes. The first use of the term "yearbook" was in the 1700's. By 1880, yearbooks, often called "senior books" or "annuals" were books produced by a senior class that sometimes included pictures or blank pages for you to paste in the pictures of your friends. Yearbooks have changed through the years and have reflected what was going on in the world at the time of their publication. Shortages of paper in the World War II years meant fewer yearbooks produced, while yearbooks from the 1960's reflect the social upheaval of the times. Yearbooks of today are in color and are designed online through the manufacturer's website.

Yearbooks are often the neglected wallflower of the genealogy world. You don't always find them at traditional repositories for genealogical information such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. People tend to view them as a reference that doesn't hold much genealogical data. But really this couldn't be further from the truth. Yearbooks provide the maiden name of women; they allow you to verify that an ancestor was in a particular place in time; and they can confirm the names of other family members (cousins, siblings that attended the same school), friends, or acquaintances. It's important to look for yearbooks not just for your adolescent ancestor but also the ancestor who worked as a teacher, coach, or administrator at the school. Although, there may not be a lot of information about a school official, you will at least be able to secure a picture of them. Depending on what the owner wrote in their yearbook, other genealogical information may be found. One writer of yearbook history notes that a yearbook in her collection, a 1930 Everett, Washington High Yearbook, included where the previous owner had written information next to photos that included the married names of women and names of spouses.

When looking for yearbooks, remember that yearbooks did not always look the way they did when you graduated from high school. Yearbooks might be available for junior high or middle schools, high schools, college and universities, military groups, fraternities and sororities. Alumni directories, more common during the 1800's through the 1910's, include lists of students and biographical information. Art and literary magazines, popular during the early 1900's, were magazines filled with articles written by students. These works may have been published on a monthly, quarterly, or yearly basis. Picture yearbooks became popular when the ability to reproduce pictures inexpensively made these types of books feasible. These include individual student and class pictures, writings and remembrances, and have been popular since about 1940.

Where can you look for yearbooks with pictures of your family member? First, try the school's library, see if they have kept their yearbooks over the years. A local public library might have yearbooks as part of their local history collection. Try looking for yearbooks owned by historical societies, genealogy societies, or as part of a genealogy website. The website San Francisco Genealogy (http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sf/sfyear.htm), has a list of volunteers who will look up information in yearbooks for you. The website Ancestor Info (http://www.ancestorinfo.com/index.htm), includes yearbooks, old manuscripts, books, and other documents that have been indexed. You can search by resource or by state. I Dream of Genealogy (http://www.idreamof.com/school.html), also has indexes of yearbooks. You can select a state and then a school and see a transcribed list of names found in that yearbook.

Our own Genealogy Today's Family Tree Connection at www.genealogytoday.com, subscription database includes yearbooks and other school records. You can search the database by last name or by resource. Over 1 million names are a part of this database and new resources are constantly being updated. If you haven't done so already, sign up as a Team Roots member; this is a free service, and you can see regular updates of what's being added.

Darilee Bedner, the owner of the Washington state bookstore, Third St. Books is a genealogist-turned book store owner who began picking up yearbooks inexpensively at thrift stores and now has over 6,000 in her collection. You can email Darilee and ask for a lookup of her yearbook collection or look at some that she has scanned at http://www.thirdstbooks.com/ybookonline.html.

Kimberly Powell's genealogy website at About.com has links to yearbook databases, http://genealogy.about.com/cs/yearbooks/index.htm. Unfortunately, many of the links are not current, but the links that are include an index to the yearbooks from Alexandria High School from 1919-1951; Alumni Lists at Distant Cousin.com; American Universities; Canadian Universities; and Wagner High Online Alumni Yearbooks, Clark Air Base, Philippines.

Ancestry.com has also started adding yearbooks to their database collections. To search through their collection from their homepage, click on the 'Search' tab and then on the list of databases on the right hand side, click on "Directories and Member List Collections," and then you can click on "US Yearbooks." From there you can choose a state, city and then a school. Yearbooks are then listed by year. Once you have opened the digitized image of the yearbook you would like to look at, you can then search for a name within the yearbook.

The Family History Library, www.familysearch.org, has a limited collection of school yearbooks, only about 70. It's understandable that the Library doesn't collect these resources because they could easily take over what shelf space the Library has. A keyword search of the term "yearbook" brings over 800 hits in the Family History Library catalogue. These yearbooks include a wide range of sources including membership organization records and churches.

Yearbooks will continue to evolve over the next 100 years as they have in the previous 100. My son's elementary school does a annual yearbook including pictures of individual students and class pictures in color. Elementary school yearbooks mean that future genealogists have yet one more source for learning more about their ancestor. Although yearbooks are limited in how much they can tell about an ancestor, a persistent genealogist who looks for yearbooks will be rewarded with information about their ancestor's student days and a picture to add to their collection.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

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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