Organizing Visual Information (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Organization of Visual Information[edit | edit source]

Your illustrations, whether photographs or other materials, will first have to be identified. Together with the gathering of oral history this should be any researcher’s first priority as the source of information won’t be around forever. Identify your photos before the relative with all the knowledge in her head dies.

You should attempt to find out the identity of the subject, the date, the location, and whether there was a special reason for a photo to be taken or illustration bought. In the days when photography was still a novelty and up until about World War II few people had their photo taken without there being a reason. Perhaps a couple just got engaged, a young man was about to leave on army service, or the group was a 50th wedding anniversary party.

Similarly, if one finds an illustration or photograph of a shop, church or house amongst family papers there must have been a reason for someone to save that item. The family historian should always ask herself, “Why was this picture taken, or this clipping saved?” The answer will often provide further insights into the family history.

During the examination of each old photograph note the name and address of the photographer, and look on the back for any other clues. Old directories can be searched to find the years of operation of a certain photographer at certain addresses, and this will aid in identification.

If you inherit a boxful of mainly unlabelled, amateur snapshots set aside an afternoon (or six!) and try this technique:

  • First write down what you know about the photos’ provenance (where they came from).

*Go through the box carefully and number each photo lightly on the back with a pigma pen, and make notes as to which photos are in the same envelope. It could be important later in the identification process to be able to reassemble the original order.

*Start a file of cards, sheets of paper or on computer with a section for each numbered photo.
*Sort the photos into piles by size. This helps to associate a group of photos with a camera, and perhaps a person who took them.

*Next take each pile and sort further by any distinguishing developers’ numbers or marks stamped on the back, or fancy cut edges, or width of white margins. This groups them into individual films and hence makes a grouping in time.
*Now take a look at one pile and see if you can identify any person, place, date or event. These should be written in that photo’s file, and as photos tend to be taken in groups then some of this information may be transferable to others on the same film pile. Identities may not be more than ‘man with large moustache’, ‘garden backing onto railway line’, or ‘same girl as in pictures 18 and 76’ at this stage, but you can build a profile of each photo and each film pile.

*Go through all other piles in similar fashion, adding all ideas and notes on similarities to your individual photo files.

*You can now start to compare the piles and make them into a timeline. Try and figure out who took each film.

*Compare with information and photos of known people, places and events that you already possess.

*Show them to older family members, for example by sending a photocopy of a group of photos―these may be more readily identifiable than a single photo. Don’t forget older friends and neighbours as well.

*When sending photos to others to assist in identification it helps to:

  • First photocopy the pictures, perhaps in groups if they are small ones, but with room to write on the page.
  • Carefully store your originals.
  • Number the pictures on the first set of photocopies and keep the set.
  • Make copies of your set of photocopies and mail to relatives.
  • Ask them to mark up and send back, or (if they wish to keep the photocopies) describe them by number.
  • Ask for any names, dates, places and events that they can remember, and also if they have any other photos not in this collection. A collection of old family photos may have been divided between relatives at the death of an ancestor, so other relatives may have others from the set.
  • Follow-ups by phone are simple as you can refer to the picture number.
  • Indicate that you want to be able to share all photos (free or at reasonable cost) with any family member who is interested.
  • Photographs may be filed together with the written documentation in binders or file folders, in a separate photograph album, or in photo envelopes in boxes. Other illustrations can be stored either in the ancestor’s file that they refer to, or in a separate illustrations album, or binder with page protectors. Specific albums designed to hold postcards are available.

Notes should be kept in each person’s file as to what photos and other illustrations pertaining to them are in your collection, where you have filed them and who owns the originals.

Organization of Artefacts[edit | edit source]

Try to identify each item as far as possible as to its history of ownership and date of manufacture, and then keep notes in the relevant ancestral files. They can provide important clues as to occupations, interests and hobbies.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studie. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at [

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.