Our History: A Photo at a Time, by Maureen Taylor

There is something voyeuristic about peeking at online photo collections. After all you wouldn’t go into your friend’s house and say, “show me your family photographs.” Yet that’s exactly what we do when we look at digital databases. Both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian have searchable databases of images. So take a peek, they want you to look at our nation’s history a photo at a time.

The Library of Congress allows users to search its database for images depicting historical events and everyday Americans. Recently the Library partnered with Flickr, Yahoo’s photo-sharing site to promote their materials and get the public involved by commenting on the images. Add your thoughts to specific images by viewing their Flickr gallery.

Expanding Your Search
Then expand your search. If you’ve never used the Library of Congress website take a break and click on their website. Here’s what you’ll find.

At the top of LOC homepage you’ll see “Library Catalogs.” Click on that then select “Prints and Photograph Catalog.” Add your search term—name, place, or subject—and you’ll see a list of relevant hits. If you’d rather see the images than read through the hits, click “Preview images” button. If you see an image that you’d like to enlarge, click on it. Some of the pictures on the website are downloadable as TIFFs or JPEGs.

In the American Memory section on the LOC page, you’ll see digital exhibits of everything from sheet music to photos. This is a national project, so that small historical societies as well as the Library of Congress contribute materials. Search by the topical list provided or enter your own search term into the search box.

Photo Initiative at the Smithsonian
This year the Smithsonian began a photo initiative. According to their site, “…as digital technology is altering the form, content, and transmission of camera imagery—Click! Photography Changes Everything provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the history, spread, practice, and power of photography.” Approximately 100 experts from a variety of fields write about how photography affects our world and lives. Essays arranged topically feature images from the Smithsonian. Explore the headings: Who We Are; What We Do; What We See; Where We Go; What We Want; and What We Remember.

You can also search for images in the Smithsonian Collections using the “search images” link. Browse by museum collection or topic, or enter a search term.

There is a lot of exciting news in the photography world these days. It’s getting easier to see our past in terms of the images our ancestors created.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Maureen Taylor’s essay on Photography and Family History appears on the Smithsonian site under “What We Remember.” The Wall Street Journal recently profiled her work with family images. Check out her Photo Detective Roadshow on Smugmug.

Maureen’s new book, Capturing Memories: Your Family History in Photographs, is available in the Ancestry Store.

Maureen’s Events Schedule
Come hear Maureen talk about photographs and family history. Sign up for a one-on-one consultation in advance at
mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com. Maureen will be at the following events:

One thought on “Our History: A Photo at a Time, by Maureen Taylor

  1. Maureen,
    I wanted to let you know that the online photo collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society (at wisconsinhistory.org/whi) now contains 35,000 images. And to remind you that our collections include places and people other than Wisconsin-related! We collect the history of all of North America, including Canada, and even have photos of some foreign places, subject and events; for example, WWII locations, posters in Russian advertising International Harvester machinery, and Dickey Chapelle’s photos in Algiers, Cuba and Vietnam.
    We recently updated our image pages, making them more user-friendly; i.e. they’re easier to search for what you want, and it’s more obvious how to order reproductions.
    A reminder to genealogists: Even if we don’t have photos of your ancestors, I’ll bet we have images that would illustrate the context of their lives in time. For example, if they farmed in the Midwest in the 1880s, try searching WHI for:
    Keyword: farm and Decade: 1870-1879
    Of course we focus on the history of Wisconsin, and recently added thousands of images taken in cities and villages in our Dairy State.
    Our Galleries that highlight specific subjects, places, or photographers are fun to check out if you have a few minutes to spend browsing the past. They range from “A Century of Aviation” to “Cigarette Trade Cards” to “Construction of the World Trade Center.” Go to wisconsinhistory.org/whi/feature/ to select a Gallery.
    We always appreciate feedback from people about our website, as well as suggestions for what people would like to see added.
    Take a look!
    Dee Grimsrud,
    Reference Archivist
    Wisconsin Historical Society

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