Originally published in Niagara Gazette & Lockport Journal — 09/08/2019 http://www.niagara-gazette.com
Albert Rossow’s 1946 yearbook caption reads, “The US Marines have lost a husky fellow who was with them for two-and-a-half years. Having been on duty on a seagoing ship, this ex-Marine now looks forward to attending college and becoming a veterinarian.”
Paging through school yearbooks can make for laughable moments when we see awkward photos of ourselves but for genealogists, yearbooks can also be an important research tool as my Uncle Al’s caption proves.
When you consider that most research records begin with a birth certificate then hop to marriage, and voting, the childhood years are often lost to time. Researching in yearbooks can give us a peek into these important formative years First and foremost, yearbooks are able to put our ancestors in a time and place. Beyond that, they offer a variety of details we can’t get from traditional resources. Student profiles may include clubs or organizations they belonged to and may even provide insight into what they might have been like in terms of personality. If an ancestor is missing from a particular school’s yearbook around wartime, checking the military yearbooks or annuals might pick up their trail.
If you have an ancestor with a local business, yearbooks can be an unexpected resource. As they are rarely indexed, take your time perusing them to find useful pieces of information. I suggest looking at each name in the class pictures. These are the people they interacted with, forged bonds with and sometimes even married. You may even find a famous classmate!
The Niagara County Genealogy Society library at 215 Niagara St., in Lockport has many. Thousands of yearbooks are available online as well. Many yearbook sites have been created to help facilitate class reunions, but they can help genealogists too. One such site is Classmates.com and while they offer subscription services, you can look through all of their online yearbooks for free. Sign up for a free account then click the “Browse Yearbooks” button along the bottom of the page.
Other free sites are Access-Genealogy.com which is completely free to search and view. By searching “yearbook”, you can peruse the 225 plus results or add other keywords to narrow it down. (ex. New York, college) Archive.org is a favorite for so many genealogical searches and completely free. Just type “yearbook” in the search bar to pull up over 20,000 results. A private, but free, website is the National Yearbook Project at Yearbook. GenealogyVillage.com. A list of US states runs down the left side, which, when clicked, will take you to that state’s page, listing school yearbooks available online by county.
As far as paid sites, my favorite is Ancestry.com which has a collection of 51,000 yearbooks scanned, indexed and searchable online. Searching is free but you will need a membership to peruse the results. Family History Centers and local libraries often have free access on-site. Additionally, Ancestry will offer free access weekends throughout the year so keep a research list on hand to make the most of them.
Yearbooks are one of those “home” sources which many people don’t think of as a family history resource yet they provide us with a fascinating perspective on our ancestors’ lives and serve as important documents of social history.
If you have yearbooks to donate, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is the President of the Niagara County Genealogical Society, a guest lecturer and a member of the National Genealogical Society.