Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Do photos really have any genealogical value?

I would guess that the answer to the question in the title of this post would be overwhelmingly answered in the affirmative by most genealogists who are online reading this blog post. But the real question lies in the ongoing dichotomy concerning the part "history" and "sources" play in the world of genealogy. I have seen several graphic representations of the genealogical community based on general interest and I thought I would use the attitude towards history and sources as a criteria for being classified into one group or another. Here is the diagram:

In my diagram everyone interested in genealogy fits in one or more of the three categories. But only where two or more categories overlap do the genealogists share a particular persuasion. You can see that it is my opinion that there are only a very small number of researchers that recognize the relative importance of all three areas. So now we look at the issue of a photograph. It is obviously of interest to a history genealogist. But maybe the other two have no need for photos especially when the names of the individuals in the photos, places and other details about the photos amy be entirely lacking.

I did not make these ovals proportionate to the size of the groups. If I had, the oval for the names and dates group would be so large that the other two would not be visible. The only group likely to value photos is the history group. My guess is that anyone reading this post is likely in somewhere in the center sharing an interest in all three areas.

So, the real answer to the question in the title is "it depends."


  1. I would say that they are invaluable, because they have the ability to do something that raw facts and figures can't - they humanise the people we are researching. You can spout of facts and figures to members of your family to get them interested in their history, and most will have their eyes glaze over. But offer to show them a photo of their great, great grandfather in his uniform or doing something interesting.... In addition, photographs, especially of people can be a source of information themselves helping date people or events, identify people, give hints to military history etc. I love them!! ;-)

    1. You definitely fall in the center of the diagram. Thanks for the comment.

  2. I think its more than "it depends". It depends on the photo subject. It depends on the area. It depends on the people. It depends on the viewer.

    I can think of many "every day" photos of activities in say, the Civil War era that give researchers valuable information about clothing, tools, etc. that would not be valuable in the slightest to say, a battle researcher. But there are many people who want to know when and how people started wearing Aran knitwear, for example. Those photographs of everyday fisherman are extremely important to them.

    Further, photos are often the only source remaining for some people that document their existence. For example, the back of a photograph is the only way I would have the date of death for my great-x4 grandfather, as it was hastily recorded on there. The dates that the historical researcher needs could very well be on a photograph.

    My own interests lie somewhere in the middle of the ovals, but I think if you looked at my family file, it would say something different. There's something to be said for what's recorded vs. what I've learned about framing the evidence I have, and I guess I need to make more of an effort to make my family file match my interest in all three ovals.

    1. It is interesting how many mis-labeled photos there are on family trees. It is also interesting to see how many family trees there are with no labels and no sources.