Sunday, August 23, 2009

Family History in Free Online Photo and Film Archives: Part I



In genealogical work, finding an old document that mentions your ancestors is thrilling enough. But how great would it be to find an old photograph of your great grandparents, or better yet, some video copies of old moving pictures from generations past?

Photography was invented in the 1830's (the daguerreotype dates back to 1837), so has been around for about 175 years; color photography for 150 years; moving pictures well over 100 years. Though not as thoroughly documented as text-based materials, photography and movie/video archives can be a rich source of family history materials. Family members don't have to have been among the rich and famous, either. Just being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time can get you in the archives.

The presence of these archives on the internet has greatly simplified the task of researching old photos and movies. Here are some of the key resources for video, movie and TV archives, all of which can be searched for free, though you generally need to pay to obtain high-quality copies of the videos that you find.

Nothing to do with this blog post...I just like the picture!

Footage.net has compiled archival news footage from a number of sources. You may want to linger here a bit just to enjoy some of the great footage, but searching for a name or place relevant to your family history is easy and quick. Just enter the terms in the search box, or use the Advanced Search to restrict results to a particular time period.

British Pathe boasts of 3,500 hours of video and 12 million still photos in its impressive archives, dating back to the 1890's. Though the focus is mostly UK, coverage is worldwide, so go and have a look. Again, Advanced Search will help you fine-tune results to, eg, a specific range of years.  Still in the UK, the British Film Institute has an impressive BFI Film and TV Database, with over a million names included.

Though some of their content is covered at footage.net, much of the BBC Film Archives can only be found at their website. To fully search the older archives, you'll have to (annoyingly) register at the site. Be sure to unclick all the send me free newsletter boxes. Also register at Movietone news archives, and have a look around.

Elsewhere in Europe, the ever-polite German Newsreel Archive has a Guest option, if you don't want to register.

The Moving Images Collection, at Georgia Tech, is another resource, though searching on a person's name is a really hit or miss prospect here -- many films are described without mentioning individuals in the films, or involved in production. Still, worth looking at their two search options: Collections, and Archive.

Think someone in your family might have been on the evening news? Check the Vanderbilt University Television News Archives, dating back to 1968, and including national news broadcasts from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News.

Whew! That's it for now. I cover still photography in Part II.


Film is fine, but most of what's out there is in print form.  Don't forget to also check for your family history at at Ancestry.com and NewspaperArchive.com. Yes, these are subscription databases, but they are also among the most powerful research tools available for looking into family roots.

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