“A Wealth of Photographs in Archives”
by Mary Nutting, Aug 2009
Mary’s article was featured in the Grande Prairie & District Branch publication — Heritage Seekers — and was the recipient of the AGS Ken Young Newsletter Award for the best article in a branch newsletter.
Because of their interest in family history, many genealogists inherit a large collection of family photographs (along with the unenviable chore of identifying and dating them). If, however, you aren’t fortunate enough to have access to such a collection, there are ways you can search for family photographs in archives. As the archivist at South Peace Regional Archives (SPRA), I have worked with people looking for photographs to illustrate their family history. Let me tell you how it works at our archives, and hopefully you can apply some of the generalities to Archives in the areas where your families originated.
More and more, archives are uploading descriptions of their collections and portions of their photograph collections to the World Wide Web. But remember that these are just a portion. For every photograph that is uploaded, there are many more for which only the description is there, and methodical searching is necessary. And don’t expect any of these photographs to come up on a Google Search. Usually, they are buried too many layers down in the finding aids to be available to Google. You have to go to the specific Archives’ own website and do your search there.
The most obvious and probably most important genealogical resources are the family collections. There are many of these in archives, and the most logical way to search is by family name. If you find a reference to your family but do not immediately see a photograph, don’t assume there aren’t any. Follow the links back to the description of the collection. There you may find information about more photos, about related collections, or even about unidentified photographs. Keep digging!
A case in point is the Lundseth collection at SPRA. This album of photographs from North Dakota and Molde, Norway, dating back to the late 1800s, was donated by a descendent. Some of the photos are partially identified, such as this one labeled “Mali Hjelset’s parents”, but for most there is no information. Since we know the descendants, and the area of origin, our intention (once we have processed the collection) is to upload them to see if there is anyone searching for this particular family.
School photos are often donated to archives, complete with the identification of each child. Do you know which school your ancestors attended, or even the community they went to school in? Look for class photographs from the schools in that community. Other school collections may have individual photographs which are not identified (such as graduation portraits), so if you know what the person looks like, and can visit that archives in person, you can identify them.
The same holds true for group photographs. Perhaps your ancestors belonged to a certain church or social group, served on town council, or played on a sports team. Archives contain the records of many organizations, such as the Women’s Institute, I.O.D.E., Royal Purple, Kinsmen, etc. The list is endless. These collections often contain a large selection of identified photographs within their history scrapbooks or membership records, only a few of which are uploaded to represent the collection.
Photograph Studio Collections
Another kind of collection that is becoming more common in archives is the Photographic Studio collection. Because of their size, and because of privacy and copyright....
Read more about the types of photograph collections that can be found in archives and their purpose in family history storytelling in the Relatively Speaking, August 2009 issue.
More places to locate large photography studio collections, school and building photographs and so much more can be found at:
- City of Edmonton Archives (Edmonton) ›
- Provincial Archives of Alberta (Edmonton) ›
- Glenbow Museum & Archives (Calgary) ›