Photographs << Family Records <<


Photographs are a unique resource that bring ancestors to life in a way that words and facts can't quite manage by themselves. They also have a way of engaging even those of us who aren't genealogically inclined. Who among us wouldn't be just a little captivated by that picture of our great-grandmother who looked so much like us or of that ancestor wearing his Civil War uniform? They also have the power to bring new information to light. Sit down with an older relative and an album of sepia-toned photos and listen as the stories you've never heard before just spill out.

Of course, there is nothing quite as frustrating as having some striking, old photographs in your collection and having no clue who the people pictured are. Almost all of us have some old photos sitting in a shoe box or stashed away in a closet somewhere. If you're lucky, perhaps someone in your family actually took the time to label them and put them in a photo album. If not, though, why not consider being that person who preserves these memories for the benefit of future generations?

Set up sessions with any older relatives and see if you can take the mystery out of some of those sepia strangers. Be sure to ask not just who, but also when, where and what event or occasion you might see. Then write this information on the back of the photos, preferably close to the margins and using a #1 soft lead pencil or an archival-quality pen. If the photos are in an album, write the information on the album page or on a list attached to the page.

If you don't have easy access to older relatives, don't despair. There are a number of books and websites to help you identify the people in your photos, not to mention more and more websites designed to share old photos and reunite strays with the families from which they wandered. Also visit our records at risk episode to learn more about preserving and sharing these irreplaceable pieces of your family's past.


The information contained on this page comes from a variety of sources, but relies heavily on The Everything Family Tree Book by William G. Hartley (Adams Media, 1998) and Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide to Family History & Genealogy by Jim & Terry Willard with Jane Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).