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A Genealogist In The Archives

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Unidentified Photographs In The Archives

You may already know that archives, historical societies, genealogical societies and libraries that have record collections could also have a nice photo collection. I have talked about photographs in the archives on this blog before, see my previous post:

But did you know that within these photograph collections are most likely a collection of "Unidentified Photographs". The Houston County, Tennessee Archives has a collection of these types of photographs in our collection. We are always putting these photos on display and asking anyone that is interested to take a look at them and see if they recognize anyone in the photo or the places they were taken.

Unidentified photograph taken in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Donated photograph located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives.

These unidentified photographs could include photos of people and also places. The fact that they are unidentified can mean that the people who work in the archives don't know who or what is in the photograph and there is nothing written on the back of the photograph to help in the identification. They simple came to the archives unidentified.

When record collections are donated to the archives by patrons, they sometimes include photographs that not even the patron knows where they came from or who they depict. While it's not a high priority for the archivist to research the photographs and try to determine who or what is in them, we do love it when we have researchers come to our archives and want to look at them to try to find their ancestors or the places where their ancestors lived.

Unidentified photograph. Donated photograph located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives.

I am always encouraging genealogists to visit the repository where your ancestors lived and look through their photograph collections, if they have them. You might just find a long lost photograph of your ancestor or a photograph of the school where they attended.

When you visit a repository, please take your own photographs with you of the ancestors from that area and even photographs of any buildings or anything from the area so that you can compare them to the "unidentified photographs" in the collections. You might just make a connection and be able to identify some of the photos that have been lying in collections for years.

Most photograph collections are processed in the Manuscript Collections section of the archives. Either the archives has put all their photographs in one big collection or most likely the photographs are included in the many separate records collections that the archives houses. The Finding Aid from the various Manuscript Collections would be helpful to you when researching in these repositories. Be prepared to be asked to put on gloves when you handle photographs. The oils and dirt on our hands can transfer to the photographs and cause damage over time.

Henry Marion Turner and wife Anna Elizabeth (West) Turner (second couple on the right in the back row), rest are unidentified. Located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives.

Some archives have even digitized their photographs and put them online on their websites, so be sure to check out the website of the archives you are interested in researching. Also, before you travel to the archives, give them a phone call and ask them if they have photographs in their collections, this might save you some disappointment.

Most importantly, remember that archives and record repositories that do have photographs, ones that are clearly identified and ones that are not. It is always beneficial to the genealogists to check out these collections.

Remember: "It's Not All Online, Visit or Contact An Archives Today!!"


  1. I keep telling people to check archives and local sites for gems. I love reading your posts. So glad you started this blog. Happy New Year!

  2. Linda, thank so much for your comments. Seems that genealogists have forgotten or just don't use archives anymore since so much as been put online. The trick is, there is still so much more out there that is not online! Thanks for reading!