Library of Congress Photos

By Lynn Ewbank Premium

Online photo research is like most family history research—a hit-and-miss endeavor. Genealogists primarily looking for faces of their ancestors are likely to be disappointed. But when you look beyond faces you might be surprisingly pleased to find photos of places and events that affected your family.

Not long ago, for example, I got a copy of a photograph of a train wreck. Many such photographs exist because historic disasters attracted photographers then just as they do today. What makes this one interesting to me as an archivist is that it’s a panoramic photograph. What makes it interesting to me as a family historian is the fact that my great-grandfather from Illinois was reportedly a passenger on this train when the wreck occurred.


I found this piece of my family’s past while browsing the list of all collections on the Library of Congress’ American Memory Web site A category titled “Panoramic Photographs 1851-1991” caught my eye. Would the Library of Congress possibly have an original print of my great-grandfather’s train wreck, which was in 1909?

A click on the link led me to a title page. The summary listed “disasters,” my next choice. Out of the 144 photographs that make up this part of the collection, the very first listed happened to be my image, “Wreck on the I.C.R.R., near Farmer City, Ill., Oct. 6, 1909.” I could barely believe my eyes!

Next, I had two questions. First, could I obtain a copy through the Library of Congress? The Panoramic Photographs page memory. held links to answers. Following the instructions on “How to Order Photographic Reproductions,” I looked for a reproduction number and found none, so I recorded the photo’s call number and a brief description as requested. Next, I called the Photoduplication Service at (202) 707-5640. An 8×10 black-and-white glossy print was indeed available and would cost $40 plus $8.50 packaging and shipping. I was told I could expect my print three to six weeks after submitting my order. Requests are taken by mail and fax, so I faxed my order to (202) 707-1771; exactly three weeks later, my photo arrived via FedEx.


My second question: Could I use this photograph in publication form? Through the article “Copyright and Other Restrictions Which Apply to Publication and Other Forms of Distribution of Images”, I learned that photographs published before 1923 are now in the public domain. (Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 6, supplemented by SL 15, New Terms for Copyright Protection. See “Now What?” in the February 2001 Family Tree Magazine for a discussion of copyright laws and family photos.) That meant I could not only purchase a copy of this 1909 photograph for my own personal enjoyment, but I could also share it with others through a family history article, book or even here as an illustration for this article.

But my learning experience wasn’t over yet. From other links on the site, I not only read a history of panoramic photography but also learned how a panoramic photograph is made

Do you want to enhance your own chances of success when searching for photographs online? Then remember to look for events and places, not just faces. There may be a panorama from your past just waiting for you to find it.

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