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22 Online Historical Photo Databases

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

If you’re lucky, you know what your ancestors looked like from old pictures handed down in the family. But do you know what their house or neighborhood looked like? The businesses, churches and schools that formed the backdrop for their lives? The immigrant ships they sailed on? These images will turn your ancestors from words on a flat page to three-dimensional people with experiences of their own. But how to you get to there from here?

Fortunately, most libraries, archives and museums have joined the digital age and posted at least part of their image collections online. As a result, you can browse or keyword-search these historical photo archives (many of them free) from the comfort of home. Some sites even let you tag photos to make them easier for others to search, or annotate them with your family’s story.

And any item may have been photographed or scanned is considered an image, meaning these databases don’t confine themselves to just old photographs. In addition to a turn-of-the-century picture of Great-grandma’s house, you might find an image of a washboard like the one she used, a map of the township where she lived, or a postcard of a landmark she visited.

Fact is, you never know what you’re going to find until you start searching. Here, we’ve gathered together 22 of the best websites where you can find historical photos—both in the United States and abroad.

1. AGSL Digital Photo Archive: South America

The University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee shares the American Geographical Society’s images of South America here. Search by place, or click Browse All to narrow the collection using filters for the place and photographer.

2. BYU Historical Photographs

Brigham Young University has a fantastic collection of historical images, many from Utah but some from other areas. Among the latter are images of the San Francisco Earthquake and Europe in World War II. The Huntington Bagley Collection features 4,500 portraits out of the 15,000 taken by this Springville, Utah, studio. Each image has a title, description and subject headings (which may include family names).

3. British Library: Picturing Places

In addition to photos, maps, engraved illustrations and paintings help us understand how the places our ancestors lived have changed over time. This growing collection from the British Library focuses on the landscape of British places, so search by the places your UK ancestors called home. Don’t stop with the visuals: Well-researched articles and videos help you understand the images and give insight into how your ancestors lived, traveled and expressed themselves.

4. Calisphere

Imagine being able to search historical images from a bunch of California libraries and archives all at once. A long list of historical societies, colleges and local libraries contributed photos, maps, illustrations and more to this site. Start your search by typing a term into the search box on the home page.

On the results page, use the filters on the left to narrow results by type of item (image, text, moving image, etc.), decade, institution or collection. Click an image for a larger view. One of my favorite features here? Underneath the image, click the gray Get Citation button for source information that’s easy to copy in one fell swoop.

5. CARLI Digital Collections

The Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois brings together historical images, manuscripts, sound recordings and more. Searching here is easy: Enter a name, topic, or keyword into the search box at the top right. Click the Advanced Search tab for the option to search and narrow results with filters for date, subject, format (photo, text, etc.) and more. Bear in mind that not all items are available to the general public. Some, including Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, are restricted for use at CARLI member libraries.

6. Cincinnati Digital Library

If you have ancestors in southwestern Ohio, southeastern Indiana or northern Kentucky, look here for photos of their lives. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s digital collections include photos of early 20th-century Cincinnati, 1937 Ohio River flooding, and more. You’ll also find digitized city directories, newspapers and other resources. Use the search box at the top right, or select Advanced Search to scour specific collections, enter a date range and more.

An image I love here is the Cincinnati Panorama of 1848, a detailed daguerreotype of the city’s riverfront that captures storefronts, people (if they happened to remain still enough during the exposure time) and docked boats.

7. Cornell University Library Digital Collections 

Definitely worth searching here is the Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, which gathers 640 images dating back to the 1800s. The majority are unidentified, but detailed descriptions include place and photographer when known. Search for names and places right on the home page. Once you get the results, you can use filters on the left to narrow your findings by collection, date, location and more.

8. Digital Library of Appalachia

I love when libraries and archives work together to create an online resource that crosses state lines. On this site, almost two dozen college and university libraries share photos, documents and artifacts from the hills of Appalachia. On the home page, you can browse collections by contributor or topic or enter a keyword in the search box. On a results page, search specific collections, add a date to your search and more.

9. Flickr

We’d wager that many of your favorite libraries have collections on Flickr—that includes several listed here. The site gives individuals, museums and other organizations an easy way to share pictures, let the public access them, and gather comments. Search at the top for a topic or organization, then click Photos (to see all related photos), People (to go to the photostreams of people and organizations that post related material) or Groups (to view the pages and photo­streams of groups that post related photos). Then choose the organization you’re looking for.

Many institutions participate in Flickr Commons, whose goal is to “share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives.” A search box on this page lets you search just these images. If you register for Flickr (it’s free), you can add tags and annotations to images.

Another cool thing about Flickr? You can use it to search the Internet Archive website’s images from old books. Information provided includes the publication in which they were found—even the exact page, textural references as well.

10. German National Archives

Twentieth-century German history is well represented in this collection of more than 245,000 images, but earlier treasures date back to the 1860s. Click Advanced Search to search by place, date or other terms, or click Topic Search to browse (you may need to use Google Translate for the Classification headings). Add finds to a “board” so you can view them in a gallery or list, or in a detailed view for each.

11. Getty Research Institute Digital Collections

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is one of the world’s premier art museums, and of course it has a first-rate photograph collection. You can click one of the featured collections on the website’s home page to browse it, or click Search the Digital Collections to search item titles and descriptions with a keyword. Use filters on the left to narrow your search. In your search results, a green link indicates images you can view from home; others require you to be at the museum. Click Actions above the image thumbnail for a citation. Click on the thumbnail to see an enlarged image, as well as a download link for many photos.

12. Harvard Digital Collections

Scroll down on the home page to choose from historical image collections documenting women working, workers in the 1930s, immigration to the United States, Holocaust relief in Europe and more. One of my favorites is Daguerreotypes at Harvard, a group of 3,500 images from the 1840s and 1850s. On each collection page, click Search, or browse by topic.

13. Library and Archives Canada

This site’s Image Search (select Images from the dropdown) lets you look for photos and other digitized material at Canada’s national library and archives. Use the filters on the left side of the results page to view only certain types of archival material. Click an image in your gallery of search results to see an enlarged version, where you also can arrow between previous and subsequent photo hits.

14. Library of Congress Digital Collections

The United States’ largest library holds a lot of undiscovered digitized genealogical treasures. From the dropdown menu at the top of the page, select Photos, Prints, Drawings to search just visual content. Then search for topics, places, organizations and even names. You then can filter results by place, date and more.

If you find a good match, click the subject heading in the image’s catalog listing to see similar items. A few items are for use only in the library, but most are downloadable in several sizes. Check the copyright information to make sure an item is in the public domain before you publish it anywhere.

15. National Archives Catalog

While the National Archives and Records Administration’s online strength is helping you understand its holdings (and its main digitization strategy has been to work with third-party organizations like Ancestry.com), it does have digital collections. There’s no quick link to that content; rather, you’ll use the catalog to find it.

Click Advanced Search and enter a term such as Civil War. At the top, check only Archival Materials Online (otherwise, results will include catalog descriptions for photos that aren’t digitized). In the Type of Archival Materials section, choose Photographs and Other Graphic Materials. Then click Search.

That Civil War searches netted more than 2,000 photos, broadsides, military service records and more. For some images, a View/Add Contributions button lets you register or log in to add tags, transcriptions and comments.

16. National Library of Australia: Trove

The Picture Australia initiative, now part of the National Library of Australia’s Trove website, started in 2000 with half a million images. It quickly grew to more than 2 million pictures contributed by 70 organizations and individuals. Search for type of photo, surname or place to find old photos, maps and more. You, too, can add relevant photographs to Trove (via Flickr; see No. 9) and help grow a continent’s common visual history.

17. National Library of Ireland Digital Photographs

On the website of this Republic of Ireland institution, you can search for images of the places your Irish ancestors lived by entering a place name or browsing by place or other topic. (The library’s collection covers the entire island until 1922; and thereafter, the Republic.) On your results page, click an image for a closer view. Look to the right of your results for a list of related subject headings; click one to view all items assigned to that subject.

You can also click over to the library’s Flickr page (see No. 9), where members of the photo-sharing site can post information about an image.

18. National Library of Scotland

Collections here cover the First World War, 1929 Edinburgh, 1860s Glasgow, and Scots engaged in sporting activities. You can search some collections individually by clicking on the title. Or click the magnifying glass in the upper right corner of the home page to run a Google search of the website (which returns web pages containing your search terms, some of which also have photos).

19. New York Public Library Digital Collections

NYPL is one of the forerunners of digital collections for researchers, with more than 890,000 images from all over the world now accessible online. Scroll down the home page to see a sampling of collections, and search all of them at once using the keyword search box. On the results page, you can add a date range and filter by topic, place and more. Alternatively, click Browse on the home page.

A keyword search for Canal Street, narrowed to the place “New York, NY,” and the dates 1890 to 1910, resulted in more than 30 street scenes and maps. Find a collection overview and search tips here.

20. Tulane University Digital Library

Photo collections here cover New Orleans history and culture, African-American life in the South, the Civil War, and more. If your roots lie in Latin America, try the Early Images of Latin America collection with more than 1,800 pictures of people, places, landscapes, urban and rural scenes from the mid-19th century to around 1910. You can download many of the images.

You can keyword-search collections; click Advanced Search to look for terms in the image catalog’s title, creator, description or other field. Experiment with search terms to find the one that works best for the photos you want to see.

21. University of Washington Libraries: American Indians of the Pacific Northwest

This University of Washington collection lets you view more than 2,000 images of American Indians from the Pacific Northwest: people, dwellings, Indian schools and more. The holdings include the iconic images taken by photographer Edward Curtis. Essays by anthropologists, historians and teachers help you understand the context and content of the photographs.

22. YIVO Digital Archive on Jewish Life in Poland

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Polish Jewish Archive is America’s only collection about Poland’s once-thriving Jewish community (and one of few worldwide) to be saved from the destruction of the Holocaust. In addition to photos, you’ll find maps, documents, ephemera and catalog entries for non-digitized objects. To browse, look under the tab for Galleries, select Photos and scroll down.

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A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Family Tree Magazine.