Knowing where to find historical images can make us all better storytellers. They give stories a visual context words alone might not convey. That helps readers digest and understand your stories. (See also Why Context Matters in Storytelling.)
(Note: This post was originally published in 2013, updated October 2019, April 2021)
Ideally, we’d all have family photos to add to our accounts. If you’re like me and have a lot more stories than photos, historical image sites can be the answer. Ferreting out historical images (photos, art, even cartoons) isn’t as intimidating as you might think.
Before I review some Internet resources, remember….
Give Credit When Credit is Due
Aside from what may or may not be required by law, giving credit to the original photographers and repositories is part of “playing nice.” This attribution helps other researchers know where to look for images. It also gives your narrative a little street cred. For a legal interpretation of why you should give attribution, check out The Legal Genealogist blog.
Great sites for Finding Historical Images
Back to our list of where to look:
The United States Library of Congress
You don’t have to leave the couch to visit the U.S. Library of Congress (LOC). Their Prints & Photograph Online Catalog (PPOC) includes photo collections, posters, prints, and even Sanborn insurance maps. You can search for images with keywords.
For instance, my mother was raised on a tobacco farm in Virginia, but the family has no photographs of the barn. However, through the PPOC, I found a photo of a tobacco barn from the adjacent county.
Caveat: The Library of Congress gives whatever copy- or usage rights it can, but securing appropriate permissions is up to the user. If you’re using the images commercially, you need to look at carefully at the accompanying information.
Pro tip: I learned the hard way: Take a screen shot of the image with the citation information as you download, so you won’t have to go back and hunt for the information later.
Commons by Flickr
Normally, you have to look at each photograph on Flickr to see what the copyright and use limitations are. However, Flickr also has a library of historical images from partner archives called The Commons by Flickr. Participating institutions include national archives such as the U.S. National Archives, the British Library, and the National Library of Sweden, plus many universities and museums.
Not to be confused with the very similar-sounding Wikipedia online encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons is a media file repository. It makes “public domain and freely licensed educational media content” available to everyone. Volunteers maintain the repository.
For instance, if you had family members who spent time in a tuberculosis sanatorium, you could find media images of sanatoriums. It also returns 1940 U.S. Census images of sanatoriums.
Online Military and Veteran’s Archives
The repositories listed above contain historical military images. To search U.S. military photos in the public domain (which most are) go to https://search.usa.gov. For instance, searching for photos for the B24, I found 23 photos or the interior and exterior from the Air Force Museum. I also found the below photo from 1943.
You can also find a wealth of images at historylink101.com, including photos from the D-day invasion. (Tip: An example of a historical document augmenting a narrative: “My Grandfather’s Military Service”)
In addition to the Library of Congress, Yale University Digital Commons has great historical maps.
In addition, Google Earth now has historical images. You can see (and save by making a screen print) of your hometown. You can see how an area has changed over time.
If you strike out there, you can contact the municipality of interest to inquire if they have aerial photos from earlier decades. (For more about writing about home towns, see Writing about Hometown Memories Made Easy)
Wait, There’s More
Neal Umphred of The Writing Cooperative has created an exhaustive list of free photo resources in 101 Sources for Free Photos for Your Medium Story. Although many don’t specialize in historical photos, there are enough esoteric categories to make looking through the list worth your time. In addition, by using keywords such as historical, vintage, old, or antique in searches, you might find something that will fit your needs.
Using Historical Images from Ancestry.com and Other Genealogical Research Sites
Ancestry.com, like its sister sites and competitors, has an extensive collection of historical images and users have uploaded family photos. Whether you have permission to use them is a quagmire.
Ancestry’s Terms and Conditions state that “content” (i.e. photos, etc.) uploaded by users can be used by other users.
You feel a “but” coming right?
BUT many users who have uploaded photos a) didn’t have the copyright authority to upload them in the first place, or b) weren’t aware that others could feature a picture of their grandmother in a family history book. The best practice is to contact the user and ask for permission. (You’re probably cousins of some sort anyway. Time to get to know each other!)
What about Ancestry’s licensed content?
I’m going to refer you back to their Terms and Conditions because I’m not a lawyer. Furthermore, Ancestry has the right to change their Terms and Conditions. Read carefully and see if you think your intended purposes fits in with their terms. If you need written permission, they tell you how to obtain that.
What’s your go-resource to find historical images?
Title background image: “Two photographers taking each other’s picture with hand-held cameras while perched on a roof,” created between 1909 and 1932, Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress
Tobacco Barn: “Edgewood Farm, Tobacco Barn, Halifax County, VA,” Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress
Pinnable image background: “We Can Do It!” Rosie the Riveter, Created by Office for Emergency Management, War Production Board, 1942 – 1945. Permission: The U.S. National Archives @ Flickr Commons.
©Laura Hedgecock 2019