Finding Unidentified Photographs in Archives


Finding a photograph of our ancestor can be a genealogical accomplishment and a reason to do the “Genealogy Happy Dance”. Many genealogists, like me, are still looking for their ancestor’s photographs.

Did you know that many archives have photograph collections? This fact may not be known by most genealogists because photograph collections are not in plain sight or available in the research room. Photograph collections are usually housed in a records vault or in a back room in cold storage stacks.

Photographs are donated to archives on a regular basis. Recently, the local newspaper in Houston County, Tennessee donated their entire collection of old photographs to the Houston County Archives. All photographs are now taken digitally and never printed. These boxes of photographs included people, buildings, local events and many other subjects. The Houston County Archives is now processing these photographs, inventorying them and will eventually digitize them to be shared online.

Photographs of individuals, groups, couples and children are a big part of most photograph collections. Also, photographs of local buildings, houses, churches and business can be part of the collection. There could also be school group photos, church Sunday school classes and the local Garden Club available in archived photograph collections.

Whenever visiting an archive, always ask about their Photograph Collection. The archivist may first give you an index to look through. If you see something of interest, tell the archivist or make a written request that those particular photographs be pulled and brought to you.

When the archivist brings the photographs, do not be surprised if you are asked to wear gloves to handle them. The oils and dirt on hands can damage photographs if handled without gloves. Even though the photographs maybe contained in archival sleeves, gloves may still be required.

Ask about the “Unidentified Photographs” in the collection. Almost all archives have unidentified photographs just waiting for someone to identify them. This group is usually the largest section of the photograph collection. If you know what your ancestor’s looked like, please take time to search through the unidentified photographs to see if you can find identify any of the photographs.

These unidentified photographs could be arranged by people, places, events, etc. There could also be a descriptive index available. This type of index is arranged by the description of the photograph and not by names because they are unidentified. As an archivist, I am always grateful to genealogy researchers that can help us identify those that are depicted in our unidentified photographs. I also get excited when a genealogist can identify a place, a building or an event that the photograph shows.


It is always so sad when I receive a donation of photographs and most of them are unidentified. I look at the faces in those photographs and I know those people belong to someone who is doing genealogy research. I just wish I could reunite them. I recently accepted a collection of photographs from a local resident who was cleaning out her home and most of these photographs are unidentified. She assures me that the people in the photographs are from the local area but just don’t know who they are. I am hoping they will eventually be identified and the people can be remembered for who they are and how they contributed to the local society.

So, the next time you are visiting an archive, talking with the archivist on the phone or emailing them, ask about their photograph collections and especially their unidentified photograph collections. You might be pleasantly surprised!


About Melissa Barker

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Manager for the Houston County, TN. Archives. She also lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. She writes her own blog and has written articles for several publications. She is affectionately known as The Archive Lady. She is also a Professional genealogist that works with clients researching their Tennessee ancestors.

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