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A Genealogist In The Archives: Photographs in the Archives

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Photographs in the Archives

Photographs of our ancestors is a great find!

If your like me and don't have very many photographs of the people you are researching, have you thought about checking at the local archives?

Archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries and museums could have photograph collections. I have talked about photographs in the archives on this blog before, see my previous post:

These photograph collections will not be on the shelf in the research room. Most likely they will be located in the back room and will have to be requested.

Many times there is an index of what photographs are available and that index is usually arranged by surnames and subject names. The index can usually be accessed by asking the archivist for it or it could be on the in-house computer.

Archives have photographs of people, local homes, local businesses, churches and other buildings that your ancestor may have been associated with. So, when looking for photographs, don't forget to locate those photographs of the church your ancestor went to or the local mercantile they frequented.
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. 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. 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 archives 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 archive, 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 house. The Finding Aid from the various Manuscript Collections would be helpful to you when researching in these archives. 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. 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.



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  1. Our historical society's archives have put up a lot of the photos on our website to help people see what we have. They then can contact us for a photo with better resolution. However, we have way more photos that are not digitized!

    1. Lisa, that is great! There are many archives, large and small, that have put their photographs online. I hope one day to digitize the Houston County, TN. Archives photographs and put them online. Thanks for reading my blog!

  2. Melissa,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Genealogy Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  3. Thank You Jana! I always appreciate it when you recognize my blog posts!