They say a photo is worth a thousand words—and this principle certainly holds true for family history research. Documents can give you specific dates and details about your ancestors, but a photo—of the events your ancestors experienced, the places they lived, or perhaps even the actual people—can provide insights impossible to glean from words alone.
But how do you find these invaluable photos? A growing number are now online, just a click away if you know where to look for them. Here are a few places to start.
Flickr (flickr.com )
No search for online photos is complete without visiting Flickr. With billions of photos already in their collections and millions more added each day, the site is massive. From the home page, you can search by a particular topic or even by a person’s name. In addition to photos uploaded by individuals, Flickr hosts substantial collections from major archives and libraries. For an idea of what these institutions are, hover the mouse pointer over Explore, and then in the drop-down menu, click The Commons. From there, click Participating Institutions to see a list that includes (among others):
- National Library of Norway
- British Library
- California Historical Society Digital Collection
- Texas State Archives
- National Library of Scotland
- Swedish National Heritage Board
- Smithsonian Institution
- State Library and Archives of Florida
- New York Public Library
- Library of Virginia
Most of these participant organizations have online collections of their own that are worth searching separately.
The Library of Congress (loc.gov/photos/collections)
The Library of Congress houses over 15 million photos just in its Prints and Photographs Division. One million of these images are online, arranged by collection and searchable by topic or even by name. A few examples of its collections are the following:
- Civil War (15,000 images)
- Detroit Publishing Company (25,000 images of cities, towns, work scenes, and more in the eastern United States)
- National Photo Company Collection (35,000 images documenting life in Washington, D.C.)
- National Child Labor Commission Collection (5,000 images taken between 1908 and 1924, showing the living and working conditions of children in the United States)
- Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia (2,000 items)
National Archives Digital Photography Collections (archives.gov/research/alic/reference/photography.html)
This website contains links to vast photo collections, only some of which are in the possession of the National Archives. The home page is divided into the categories of General, 19th century, 20th century, and 21st Century, as well as other categories. Some of the most interesting collections include:
- Photographs and Graphic Works in the National Archives (includes several subsets of online photos such as “Pictures of the American West” and “Pictures of the American City”)
- LIFE Photo Archive (millions of photos from the 1860s to the 1970s)
- Picturing the Century: 100 Years of Photography in the National Archives (a collection of some of their best photos)
- The African American Experience in Ohio
You won’t want to miss this fun site with a unique approach to organizing photos. The site’s tagline reads “connecting communities with local history,” and that’s exactly what they do. Search for your location of interest on the Google maps to find photo collections associated with that place. In addition to a regular community of individual users, many libraries and historical societies have joined.
Digital History (digitalhistory.uh.edu/)
Photos are only one part of this fabulous site. Arranged by time period, it brings history to life through words, documents, photos, film, and even music. From the home page, choose the era in which your ancestors lived. Then select the type of material you would like to see.
FamilySearch’s Photo Collections (FamilySearch.org)
FamilySearch provides access to some photo collections. On the home page, click Search, and then click Records. On this page, click in the Find a Collection field and enter a location or other search term. The system will give a list of collections where you can search by the name of an individual. Here are two collections to try:
- Utah, George Edward Anderson Photo Collection, 1860–1928. The original collection, housed at the Harold B. Lee Library, contains over 14,000 photos of people and places mostly in Utah. The index at FamilySearch.org includes the photos in which people have been identified.
- Utah, Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah, 1847–1868. Comprising Photographs, Genealogies, Biographies (Salt Lake City: Utah Pioneer Books, 1913). This collection contains over 6,000 images from the period 1847–1868.
One of the best ways to find photos at FamilySearch.org is to hover the mouse pointer over Memories on the home page, and then, in the drop-down menu, click Find. Type an ancestor’s name, and see what photos or documents have been submitted and have been associated with that name. As with many other online photo sites, you can also add your own photos.
If after trying these sites, you haven’t gotten your fill, see the below for a list of other photo collections to view. Be warned though—what you intend to be a few minutes of browsing can easily turn into a whole afternoon of photo viewing!
Other Online Photo Collections Worth Exploring
I’ve highlighted a few of the largest online photo collections, but there are many more. Here are a few other collections you might want to spend some time exploring.
- Aspiration, Acculturation, and Impact: Immigration to the United States,1789–1930 (ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration). Along with a huge collection of original documents, Harvard’s online collection has almost 8,000 photos.
- Dead Fred (deadfred.com). Aimed at genealogists, Dead Fred is a photo archive of people and is searchable by surname.
- Ancestry’s Pictures (search.ancestry.com/search/category.aspx?cat=43). Besides allowing you to search photos submitted by members, this subscription site also draws on some larger photo collections.
- State historical societies and libraries, such as the New York Public Library (digitalcollections.nypl.org) and the Wisconsin Historical Society (wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:1135), often have significant online photo collections that are relevant to the state and beyond. Do an online search for your state and add “historical society photo collections” after the name of the state to see what you can find.
- Google Images (images.google.com). Although it might seem simple, Google Images is actually a powerful search engine that pulls photos from across the web.
- Cyndi’s List (cyndislist.com/photos/archives). For an extensive list of links to photo collections, visit the “Photographs and Memories: Photo Archives, Collections and Libraries” section on Cyndi’s List.
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