Gathering Visual Information and Artefacts (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Visual Information[edit | edit source]

This category includes paintings, photographs, postcards, and illustrations from books and other sources, as well as maps. Some families are lucky enough to possess oils or water colour paintings of members of their family. There may also be portraits of people or houses in other media. You should definitely ask whether anything survives and have copies or photos made. Enterprising family historians have been known to trade such copies for family information from secretive relatives!

Photographs[edit | edit source]

Photography started about 1840 but few families have any pictures before 1860 or so. Most families do have a box or album of photographs of people and places associated with their family. Make sure that you find them before someone throws them out. Archives have indexed collections of photographs of places and people in their areas, so be sure to ask about these as well as the written sources.

It is a good idea to accumulate a collection of copy photos of each ancestor, even if your primary goal is not to research every line at present. Family photos tend to disappear if no-one is known to be interested in preserving them! Too often have I heard the lament from someone just returned from a funeral that, “They threw out Auntie’s box of photos because they didn’t know who they were/ they were only dead people/they thought no-one was interested.” Such tragedies can be averted by letting everyone know now that you are the ‘nut’ in the family who cares about all those dead people.

Do you have a good black-and-white picture of yourself and each member of your present family? Many people only have colour photos, and if you’ve taken a look at some of the early ones from the 1950s you will see that they have faded considerably. We know that B & W photos last at least 150 years.

Postcards[edit | edit source]

Postcards were introduced in 1870 and were sent and collected by thousands of ordinary people until well after the Second World War when the telephone made this means of communication obsolete. Local views were popular and the family historian should attempt to find any postcards remaining in the family. Not only will the views be interesting but there will be a name and address dated by a postmark. By examining a range and placing them in date order one can glean much information about a family’s movements, including holidays which often included visits to relatives. The messages will also convey the flavour of the times and perhaps also little gems of family data.

Today there are several firms that specialize in selling old postcards, especially topographical ones, and this is one way to obtain pictures of local churches, schools, businesses and events to add diversity to your family history.

Illustrations[edit | edit source]

All kinds of illustrations useful to the family historian can be gleaned from browsing in your library. Places, events, occupations, costumes, building plans, ships and naval battles—whatever your ancestor was involved in can be illustrated if you take the time to find the material. When photocopying illustrations from books or archival sources do ensure that you take the full bibliographic details of the source and write it at the side or on the back of the illustration. Then you will be able to correctly identify your source, and ascertain whether you need copyright clearance to publish it in a family history.

A thorough family historian will obtain photocopies of large-scale maps of the areas where his ancestors lived and worked. The researcher can then see what the neighbourhood was like, their houses, workplaces, schools and churches can be marked and a much better feel for their lives obtained.

Artifacts[edit | edit source]

This term refers to the things that have been passed down in your family from your ancestors. Examples might include a tea-set, war medals, woodworking tools or someone’s pipe. One researcher friend has his policeman ancestor’s set of handcuffs and I was given my grandmother’s flat iron (it makes a handy bookend!)

Keep your eyes open for a family photograph of the ancestor actually using, wearing or otherwise associated with the artefact. Failing this, one can research photos of the usage of such an item by others, and this would make a useful addition to the family history. When gathering family memorabilia of all kinds, remember the unique importance of maiden aunts. They often made a special point of preserving family archives and passing on stories, and may know a lot more than the married siblings if they stayed at home to look after their elderly parents. Some commonsense needs to be applied when discovering items at home having inscriptions and identifying symbols. Consider these examples:

  • I have hundreds of books in my collection which have fly leaf dedications along the lines of, “To David on his birthday with love from Auntie Edie” or “Given to Doris Brown for punctual attendance at Ashbourne School 19 July 1893”—all bought at secondhand bookshops and having no relationship to myself.
  • Give-aways (and worse) from well-known companies or hotels, such as monogrammed towels or china. Hawkins mentions a spoon with the engraved letters GWR—was it given to a faithful Great Western Railway employee, or perhaps more likely ‘acquired’ during a trip to the dining car?
  • Giftware or bookplates bearing coats-of-arms totally unrelated to the family may have been purchased at flea markets and antique stores. A well-meaning relative once sent me a fancy wooden plaque painted with the Gardner coat-of-arms—which belongs to someone else, not me.

It is wise to discuss such items with the owner and other relatives to ascertain their provenance before jumping to hasty conclusions. And, also record information about the artefact or memento on the Special Family Memento form.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.