Black and white school class photo of girls and boys
Old Family Photos

How To Find Your Ancestors in School Yearbooks!

Do you use school yearbooks in your genealogy research? College & high school yearbooks give insight into your ancestors’ lives.

When it comes to uncovering family history, school yearbooks prove to be invaluable time capsules. These timeless keepsakes hold a wealth of treasures that can bring our ancestors’ stories to life in ways that few other records can. 

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a school yearbook is photographs.

We all remember our own school picture days.  We enjoyed getting dressed up, making sure our hair was just so and just hoping (please, please, please…) that our photo session came before PE class.

So, do you use school yearbooks in your genealogy research? Did you know you even could?!

How Long Have School Yearbooks Been Around?

We often think of yearbooks as relatively “new” or modern resources. However, the history of yearbooks can be traced back to the early 19th century when the concept of documenting school memories began to take shape.

The first known school yearbook is believed to be the “Yale Banner,” published by Yale University in 1806. Initially, these early yearbooks were simple bound volumes with handwritten notes and illustrations created by students.

As photography emerged in the mid-19th century, yearbooks began to incorporate actual photographs of students, adding a personal touch to the memories captured within their pages. By the late 1800s, yearbooks had become more standardized and were being produced by an increasing number of schools across the United States.

The 20th century witnessed a significant growth in yearbook popularity, with schools of all levels adopting the tradition. Yearbooks became an integral part of student life, documenting not only academic achievements but also extracurricular activities and social events. 

[Notice how I slipped that social history in?!]

Over time, advancements in printing technology led to more elaborate designs and layouts, transforming yearbooks into visually appealing keepsakes. Today, yearbooks continue to hold a special place in education and genealogy, preserving the memories and stories of generations past.

What Genealogical Gems Can You Find in a School Yearbook?

  • A photograph of your ancestor.  Finding a photograph or your ancestor is perhaps the #1 reason a  researcher includes school yearbooks in the genealogy research plan. Often upper classmen have larger photographs and more personal information listed. Be sure to check all yearbooks your ancestor may have been included in, including high school and college yearbooks. Elementary  and middle schools also created yearbooks, but there seem to be fewer of these.

  • Photographs of your ancestor’s siblings and/or cousins.  In rural areas such as where my grandparents grew up, the local school housed many if not all grade levels.  Families lived closer together and children attended the closest school.  Look closely for photographs of siblings of your ancestor as well as cousins! 

  • Information on your ancestor’s friends. Look at those signatures and personal messages written in the back of the yearbook and within its pages.  These are people who were important to your ancestor and in the earlier yearbooks likely lived close.  Make note of their names.  If – I mean “when” –  you hit a brick wall in your research, these individuals and/or their families could be important to your research. They represent your ancestor’s FAN (family, associates, and neighbors) club.

Beyond the Pictures – Learning About Ancestors’ Lives

What was happening in the community is important to finding your ancestors and that can be found in the ads section of the yearbooks. 

Look closely at those ads. Beyond the smiling faces and fashionable attire, the advertisements and local businesses featured in yearbooks offer valuable clues about the communities in which our ancestors lived.

These seemingly mundane details can illuminate the economic landscape, shed light on local industries, and even reveal aspects of the societal norms of their time.

By studying these ads, we can gain a deeper understanding of the places our ancestors called home, providing context to their daily lives and surroundings.

Yearbook Ad page out of the Cluster Springs Yearbook
Ad Page from Cluster Springs Yearbook ~1948

What Can You Learn About Your Ancestor’s Personality in a Yearbook?

Hobbies & Interests

Yearbooks also offer fascinating glimpses into our ancestors’ interests and hobbies. By perusing the pages, we may discover their participation in various clubs, organizations, or sports teams.

Whether it was being part of the debate club, a sports enthusiast, or a member of the school orchestra, these activities provide a glimpse into their extracurricular pursuits and passions. Such discoveries not only enrich our understanding of their lives but can also foster a sense of shared interests across generations.

Look at just a few examples.

Personality Traits

Perhaps one of the most enchanting aspects of using yearbooks for genealogy research is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of our ancestors’ personalities. The inscriptions, dedications, and notes scribbled on yearbook pages can be telling of their social circles and the connections they formed during their school years.

These personal touches not only showcase the relationships that mattered to them but also reflect the social norms and communication styles of their time.

Moreover, the photographs themselves can reveal subtle nuances of their characters – from confident gazes to shy smiles. Delving into these visual cues can help us envision what life might have been like for our ancestors and enable us to form a more complete picture of who they were as individuals.

Using school yearbooks as valuable resources in genealogy research is undoubtedly a rewarding endeavor. However, the question remains: where can one find these old yearbooks?

1. The School Itself

Your first and most direct approach is to reach out to the school your ancestor attended. Many educational institutions retain copies of their yearbooks in their archives or library collections.

If the school has since closed down, do not fret; try contacting the local school district office as they may have centralized records from closed schools. These on-site sources can provide you with authentic and unfiltered glimpses into your ancestor’s school days.

School building with sign

2. Former Students

Asking former students who may have attended the same school can be an invaluable resource in your quest for yearbooks. Many alumni cherish their school memories and might have held onto their personal copies.

Reaching out to your family’s network of relatives and friends who graduated from the same school can lead to surprising discoveries. Don’t hesitate to tap into this valuable living archive; you never know what gems they might have tucked away.

3. Your Relatives – Don’t Forget to Ask Them

Family members can be a treasure trove of genealogical information, and this includes yearbooks. Check with your relatives to see if they have any old yearbooks from previous generations. Often, yearbooks hold sentimental value and are lovingly passed down through families. A forgotten attic or basement may hold a treasure trove of your ancestors’ school memories, waiting to be rediscovered.

4. Local Libraries – A Wealth of Information

Local libraries can be treasure troves of historical resources, including school yearbooks. Don’t hesitate to visit the libraries in the area where your ancestor lived and attended school.

Librarians are knowledgeable about the community’s history and can direct you to yearbooks that may not be available elsewhere. Some libraries may have digitized their collections, making it easier for you to access yearbooks from the comfort of your home.

5. Local Historical Societies – Guardians of the Past

Historical societies are dedicated to preserving the heritage of their communities, making them valuable allies in your search for school yearbooks. They often maintain archives that include old yearbooks from local schools.

Get in touch with the historical society in the relevant area and inquire about their collection. Their passion for preserving history may lead you to precious records of your ancestors’ school days.

6. Local and State Archives – Unveiling the Past

Local and state archives are repositories of historical documents, including school records and yearbooks. Check with these institutions to see if they have any relevant yearbooks in their collections.

In recent years, many archives have digitized their holdings and made them available online, simplifying your search from wherever you are.

One example for finding online yearbooks is the North Carolina Yearbooks Collection at Digital NC. Both high school college yearbooks are searchable and available to view online. 

7. Large Genealogy Databases – A Digital Trove

Online genealogy databases, like, FamilySearch, FindMyPast and MyHeritage, have been diligently digitizing yearbooks, making them accessible to researchers worldwide. These databases offer an extensive collection of yearbooks from schools across the country and around the world.

Conducting targeted searches on such platforms or browsing yearbooks by city or town can yield exciting results and help you build a more comprehensive family history.

[insert Ancestry photo]

8. Online Digital LibrariesOften Overlooked Resources

Online digital libraries are another resource for searching and finding yearbooks to use in your research. Examples include Internet Archive and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Both have yearbook collections easily searchable from the main search bar. 

The search for school yearbooks requires an open and investigative mindset. By exploring these various sources – from schools and local archives to family members and genealogy databases – you can unlock the door to your ancestors’ past.

Oh…. and don’t forget to check for yourself in the yearbooks!

Lisa Lisson 1987

I found myself in one of my college yearbooks online….oh, those 80’s hair styles.

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  • Janice Harshbarger

    I recently made an unexpected find of a half brother of an ancestor. He wasn’t talked about much in the family, was raised mostly by his grandparents, so seeing a picture of him as a high school youth was amazing. This particular find was through Ancestry but I believe the historical society also has these books. I just didn’t know to look there the last time I visited.

  • Sheila Calloway

    The Internet Archive is another yearbook source. I learned this morning that yearbooks for the college where my mother worked as the secretary to the president are online there.

  • Marie A Daniely

    Hey Lisa,
    Recently I’ve been receiving hints on ancestry with my cousins’ high school yearbook photos. Back in the fifties, we had class pictures taken in elementary school. I have one of mine. Is there a way to locate those photo’s? Finally, while going through a deceased relative’s photos I located some elementary school pictures from the 1940s. I wonder how do I research them. Nobody in my family can identify them.

  • Sam Silvey

    I just had to acknowledge your efforts in making this article available. I am a family history consultant and having a wonderful article like this provides a great resource that will surely inspire someone to look into this further!

    My father was a product of the Great Depression, attended a one room country school until he graduated eighth grade and went to work during these hard times. Luck would have it that his older sister had a copy of three years of school pictures, no yearbooks… what a precious keepsake I have and a story of the only barefoot little boy portrays!

    Thanks so much for sharing the article!

    Sam Silvey

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