A Peek into Yesteryear: Using Scrapbooks for Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena describes how scrapbooks can be a surprising and valuable resource for your family history research.

Did you ever keep a scrapbook? I’m not referring to the modern-day scrapbooks that are essentially decorated photograph albums. I’m referring to the type of scrapbook that held postcards, letters, favorite poems, photos and newspaper clippings. When I was young I would fill my scrapbook with all the events I was a part of, like band concerts, school graduations, and church activities. I would include postcards I had received from family members, and newspaper clippings I found interesting (I still have a clipping my grandmother gave me about how to cook a bat).

photo of a scrapbook

As a family history researcher I have found scrapbooks from past generations that included genealogically significant information such as newspaper clippings of births, marriages, and deaths. I’m always amazed at the dedication some people have put into documenting their community and their family through scrapbooks. Scrapbooks tell a story, a fact that was reinforced for me a few years back when I was helping a client preserve her childhood scrapbook that included valentines given to her by elementary school classmates. Some of those classmates were Japanese Americans who would later be held at the Manzanar internment camp during the World War II years.

photo of a scrapbook showing newspaper clippings

In her book Scrapbooks: An American History, Jessica Helfand describes scrapbooks as being a “visual autobiography.” Looking at the scrapbooks I own, it’s easy to see that they are autobiographies and community histories. Scrapbooks contain visual representations of what was important to the owner. Scrapbooks can hold a variety of genealogical treasures, even in cases where the scrapbook’s original owner was not related to you.

Consider some of the items that get pasted into scrapbooks: letter correspondence, newspaper articles, and photos. These all document the interests and life of the scrapbook owner, and include people from his or her community: neighbors, family members, and friends and associates from school, church and work. As virtual autobiographies scrapbooks should be part of a genealogical search, even in cases where they are not your ancestor’s but rather from someone who lived in their community. In one scrapbook that I own that dates from 1930 to 1950, there is a newspaper clipping showing the names of a graduating class as well as photographs, correspondence, thank-you notes and invitations, all documenting the life of a community.

photo of a scrapbook showing an old letter

While we often think of scrapbooking as an individual pursuit, it’s important to remember that individuals weren’t the only ones who kept scrapbooks. Organizations also kept scrapbooks that documented the people, history, and achievements of their group. So while an individual’s scrapbook may provide you with social history and even a possible mention of an ancestor, an organizational scrapbook will provide information about a group that your ancestor was a part of, allowing you to better document their activities.

photo of a scrapbook showing a picture of a high school graduation

How do you find scrapbooks to use in your genealogy research? They can be housed in manuscript collections found at libraries, historical societies, museums and archives. To find scrapbooks you can use a union catalog like ArchiveGrid. A recent search on the keyword “scrapbook” resulted in over 36,000 results.

Other combined library catalogs also exist. When I searched the catalog for Online Archive of California, which includes museums, archives, universities and public libraries in California, I found scrapbooks for organizations and groups such as:

You can also search an individual repository’s catalog for the keyword “scrapbook.”

Individuals, organizations, and other types of groups created scrapbooks that they filled with items they were interested in and didn’t want to forget, as well as ephemera that documented the activities and events of the life of their community. Many are often packed with old newspaper clippings that provide a wealth of genealogical information. Scrapbooks are just one more example of a genealogy resource that can tell your family’s history. Be sure to include them in your family history searches.

Note: all photos are from the author’s collection.

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Written by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide.

Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012).

Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

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3 thoughts on “A Peek into Yesteryear: Using Scrapbooks for Genealogy Research

  1. Nice article and I wish my own family had kept scrapbooks like the examples in your article. I created genealogy scrapbooks of my own for my children and also made copies for all of my siblings as Christmas gifts. At least the future generations in our family will have scrapbooks of the family history. It’s never too late to start, right?

  2. I have inherited several scrapbooks and they are quite fragile. Do you have any suggestions about how best to preserve these amazing books for later generations? I’m almost afraid to look at them for fear of further damaging them.
    Thanks!
    Ellen Jennings

  3. Scrapbooks are one of my favorite things to use in research. I just completed scanning my grandmother’s scrapbook from her teenage years in the 1930′s. I’ll be sharing on my blog. In addition to learning the names of cousins and her friends in the area, I gained an insight into her life I would never have known about. I hope others take time to seek out scrapbooks in their research as well.

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