Getting More Out of Yearbooks for Genealogy

Yearbooks are a fantastic resource for genealogy. Not only do they give us information about our ancestors, but they also provide context, a glimpse into everyday life, and the occasional embarrassing photo that we can share with our cousins. (Look! Grandpa actually had hair!) Let’s take a look at how we can get more out of using yearbooks for genealogy.

Browsing Yearbooks Can Be Better Than Searching

More yearbooks are being digitized and put online. MyHeritage and Ancestry each have huge online yearbook collections. You can also find them on Internet Archive, and on the websites of public libraries and historical societies. Many of them have been put through OCR (optical character recognition), which makes printed pages searchable on a computer. That’s a good thing, in that we can find references that might be hidden in sections we don’t look at. But…

Relying on searching in a yearbook means that you’re missing a lot of good stuff. OCR is not perfect and it has its limitations. And if you’re only searching, you’re missing out on things that aren’t text.

Relying on searching in a yearbook means that you're missing a lot of good stuff. Click to Tweet

Browse to Get More Names

OCR takes the characters as they are. Some sites, like MyHeritage, also run an algorithm to find equivalent/translated names, but the majority of sites do not. That means that when you search for William Smith, it isn’t going to find the references to Bill, Billy, or Wm. Smith.

If you relied only on searching, you’d miss this photo of Ralph Anderson (identified as Captain R. Anderson or “Andy”), James Wallace (identified as J. Wallace or “Jimmie”), and Harold Mills (identified as H. Mills or “Millsy.”)

Old Gold and Black, 1922, Clinton High School yearbook, Clinton, Indiana. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Browsing can also be helpful when the yearbook has used a fancy font (and yearbooks seem to love fancy fonts). Here’s an example of how OCR misread this “In Memoriam” page from the Clinton (Indiana) High School yearbook from 1922. The yearbook page is shown on the left; how Internet Archive’s OCR program recognized it is shown on the right.

OCR failure. Old Gold and Black yearbook (left). OCR by Internet Archive on the right.

In Memoriam to Louise Martin and George Kisylia… or “3n jftlemoriam” to “louige tflartm” and “George lUgplta.”

Find Your Ancestor in Group Photos and Candid Shots

Not all photos have captions identifying the subjects. If you know what your ancestor looked like (perhaps from a photo in the yearbook that is identified), look for him or her in the group photos and candid shots.

None of the people in these photos in the 1922 Woodward Technical High School yearbook are listed by name. But if you know what your ancestor looked like, perhaps you could recognize him or her.

candid photos in 1922 high school yearbook
The Technical, 1922. Woodward Technical High School yearbook, Toledo, Ohio. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Discover Signatures

Remember asking your friends and favorite teachers, “Will you sign my yearbook?” Our ancestors did the same thing. As you’re browsing, look for your ancestor’s photo; many people signed near their own photo. Also check the inside covers, the first few pages, and the last few pages of the book. Also look for special “Notes” or “Autographs” pages that might have been included, designed to be a place for people to sign.

Stepping Stone 1950, Zeeland High School yearbook, Zeeland, Michigan. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Apparently tardiness was an issue for Luella. “Dear Luella, Next year I hope you’ll be able to get to your classes on time. The teacher’s [sic] really don’t like it when you come in late. Mary Dickman.”

Learn About the School

There are so many other things that we can find when we browse a yearbook. What kind of activities and clubs did they have at the school? What was the school play? Did they have any bands? Were there any sports for girls? Was the school integrated? You can learn so much by browsing.

Learn About the Town or Neighborhood

High school yearbooks are expensive to produce. To help defray the cost, many schools sold advertising in the back. Going through the advertisements can give you a sense of the town or the school’s neighborhood. It’s an often-overlooked source of local history.

Did you ancestors meet their friends at Feisler’s Drug Store in Erie, Pennsylvania? Their ad in the Spokesman yearbook in 1918 makes it sounds like a hoppin’ place!

The Spokesman, 1918 yearbook, Central High School, Erie, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Advancements in digitization and OCR have made yearbook research easier than ever. But don’t stop with just the search! Taking some time to browse the yearbooks can give us so much more for our family history.



Posted: September 12, 2021.

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  • Amy, I totally agree! Particularly for older yearbooks.indexing is not very good at catching everything. I found a poem written by my grandmother in her 1913 yearbook that was not found through an indexed search. And, as you say, you can discover interesting information about the neighborhood and local businesses.

  • Another issue that I encountered several years ago when I did a “Google” search on my Mom’s name. It found a picture of her in her high school yearbook which I recognized because I have her original yearbook. However it said it was from a school in Pennsylvania which was incorrect as she attended & graduated from Central Catholic High School in Toledo Ohio. An excellent example of not believing everything you find on the internet!

  • In reference to “OCR failure” – do you have any tips on this for newspapers? Especially for finding obits? If I can’t find an ancestor and have the death date, I do browse the entire newspaper for several days, but this strains the eye.

    • If the surname is unusual, try searching just for that. Sometimes obits are written for “Mr. W.H. Skinner,” rather than “William Skinner.” You could also try a search for the name of the cemetery or the name of the minister; those items are commonly found in obits.

      • It’s always worth a try. Keep in mind, though, that not all websites allow wildcards against full-text (OCR) searching.

  • I love yearbooks and high school senior portraits! Whenever they are available, I always use them for all of the profile photos in my tree. I prefer them to other photos because for many of my relatives, it may be the only time they’ve sat for a professional portrait. Almost all of them are sharp and clear and taken indoors, so their eyes and features are authentic.
    Also, because most people graduate high school at about the same age [17-18 years old], I like the comparison of likenesses across generations. When the subjects are all about the same age [at the time of the portraits] you can really see family resemblances.

    • Through the sponsor pages in the back of our town’s (Killbuck, Ohio) yearbook I found the years that my grandmother and grandfather ran a restaurant and exactly what it was called. (Just plain “Anderson’s Restaurant”.)
      In a later book I lsaw an ad for their first grandchild, my cousin’s milk delivery service.

  • Yes! By browsing instead of searching I found the sports photos but I also found that the subject’s mother was the school nurse! Two stories for the price of one.

  • Being able to access yearbooks has enriched my knowledge of my ancestors–or driven home implications of facts I already knew, even for my Dad, whom I knew for 86 years.

    I knew that Polish was spoken at home, and was likely the primary language of instruction at the parochial school he went to in his Polish-American parish. However, what really made me realize how much of a struggle he had when he went to a public junior high school at the end of the K-8 parochial school was a caption below his picture re: what he wanted to accomplish in the future. It said that he wanted to be able to speak English. The problem is that I don’t know if he himself expressed that wish, or if it was written by a member of the yearbook staff. Knowing how mean kids can be, I have to wonder if this “wish” was a put-down of him. And so I have to wonder how insular his childhood might’ve been, and how difficult it might’ve been to try to make friends and interact with peers outside his ethnic community. It also explains why he must’ve worked very hard to acquire the impressive English vocabulary that has so impressed me throughout my life, and which was a significant influence in the professional path I chose.

    copyright 2023 Constance J. Ostrowski

  • Several years ago, I used yearbooks to track down a major branch of my family. I knew who they were and had been in touch with one of them for a period of time, but then the communications just stopped. I had no phone number only her email. I knew where they had been living but had no addresses. I searched for her younger brother and sister in yearbooks. After quite a few tries I found the younger sister. From that information I used the census to locate an address for their parents (I knew who were deceased). That gave me the full names of the younger brother and sister and I then resorted to using one of the background check programs to get some phone numbers. After a couple of failed tries, I was able to reach the sister (my cousin that I had recognized from the yearbook photos) and learned about her older sister’s poor health. Also about her brother and that she had an ancestry account. As we compared notes I confirmed we were cousins but not through my grandfather but his sister my great aunt. As it turned out my grandfather had remarried the sister of the husband of my great aunt. Never would have figured that out without tracking down my cousin thanks to yearbooks!