Sep 6, 2019

Ancestry’s Yearbook Database

September 6, 2019

Last week Ancestry unveiled their updated yearbook database. While they’ve long had a decent-sized collection of yearbooks, they’ve added over 100,000 new books to the collection. That’s good news for those of us who love yearbooks for their genealogical value. It’s maybe not such good news for those of us who hate our old yearbook photos and hate to see them out there for the world to see.


Yearbooks have long been one of my favorite records, not particularly because they have so much genealogical value, although they do place a person in a certain place at a certain time, and they may shed light on the interests of our ancestors. The real reason I, and probably most others, like yearbooks is for the pictures. Where else can you find photos (even if the quality is not the best) of relatives when they were young and just beginning their life? In my own mother’s family, photographs were rare. She came from a large family who were poor and who became even poorer during the depression when she was growing up. There just aren’t many pictures of my mother and her eight siblings when they were teen-agers in any of our own collections. Since all nine of them attended the same high school, my sister and I visited the school a few years ago, Flip-Pal portable scanner in hand, and scanned all of the photos we could find in the old yearbooks. It was a lot of fun, and everyone at the school was interested in our project and wanted to know all about it.


This week when the Ancestry images came on line I played with the database a bit, and I was surprised to find that my sister and I had missed some photos when we were working on our project at the high school. Time was short when we visited, and the indexes in the older yearbooks leave a lot to be desired so that’s probably why. At least that’s my excuse for our oversight. It did turn out, though, that Ancestry doesn’t have all of the yearbooks from the school we visited; it seems like their coverage of schools is somewhat hit or miss. I have no idea how Ancestry was able to secure these yearbooks so I don’t know whether they made a purposeful choice of what to digitize or not. Some schools seem to have long runs of yearbooks, others few, and, of course, still others have no yearbooks online. It’s definitely worth checking before you make a trip to a school your ancestors attended since it might save you a trip. I especially like that Ancestry has made it possible to save the entire page where someone appears and also the individual portraits with a simple click of a button. No saving a full page and then cropping the portrait you want is necessary. In just a few minutes today I was able to locate, label and save eight photos of family members, all from my desk chair.


Wonderful as these photos are (okay, definitely not my own, which show up for all four of my high school years, unfortunately), there is something slightly creepy about being able to find some of the newer photos. For example, I found photos of my niece who graduated in the late 1990s. I doubt she even knows her photo is available for anyone to see, but I’m sure no one asked her if she cared whether it was posted or not. I’m fine with having earlier yearbooks available such as the ones of my aunts and uncles who are nearly all gone now, but I’m not so sure about the newer ones. I know that these yearbooks were published, and students didn’t have to have their photos in them, but I don’t think anyone ever imagined widescale distribution of them such as Ancestry is doing.


Yearbooks seem to be in a somewhat gray area when it comes to copyright. Everyone seems to agree that yearbooks published before 1923 are in the public domain and that yearbooks published between then and 1977 are probably in the public domain as well, as long as they don’t have a copyright notice on them. Some, including Judy Russell in her The Legal Genealogist (, state that most yearbooks published after 1977 are copyright protected since it was automatic after that time, whether or not it was applied for. There are other legal questions about yearbooks concerning who actually owns the copyright for them. The professional photographer who took the photos, amateur school photographers, school districts, schools, the subjects of the photos themselves might all have a legal claim. Presumably, a huge company like Ancestry has lawyers who researched the legality of publishing their new collection of yearbooks online. Just in case, I’m downloading photos of my own family members now. I certainly won’t publish them anywhere and will keep them offline until and unless I’m sure it’s okay, but I want them for my and my own use, and I’ve seen record collections disappear in the past.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large