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Resource Data - Yearbooks

Genealogists are often concerned with marriages, the acquisition of property, or the various professions an ancestor once held. But what about the influences that lead them to make those decisions, the classmates who would become lifelong friends, what about the formative years? Yearbooks serve as a unique snapshot chronicling the lives of America’s youth and represent an important chapter in an ancestor’s life. The story often begins for most (apart from the birthdate) when an individual is legally an adult, leaving out an important gap of sixteen years or more. Official records can state facts, but the yearbook enables us to see personality. Fortunately, the Historical Society has an ever growing collection of yearbooks accessible to researchers.

The earliest yearbooks date back to the dawn of the nineteenth century and served as mementos that only contained text and graphics, but no photographs and often went by the title of annuals or class books. Starting at the collegiate level and slowly trickling their way down to primary schools, each volume was used to collect signatures or pressed flowers as mementos. Technology and the costs associated with production made the inclusion of photographs difficult. Fortunately, by the 1850s negative based photography became popular and succeeded in greatly reducing the cost per an image. The modern yearbook was born. Further developments reduced cost and increased accessibility such as; Halftone printing in 1873, Offset printing in 1907, Desktop publishing in 1985, and Digital printing in 1993. The twenty-first century saw an increase in digital tools and sharing methods, changing the way yearbooks could be published forever.

The Society’s yearbook collection spans twenty cubic feet of material, a little over four shelving units in the library and reflects content from the late nineteenth to late twentieth centuries. Our oldest yearbook is from the eighteen nineties and our most recent item dates nearly a century later in the nineteen nineties. Many of the earlier yearbooks are bound in either cloth or leather, with ornate writing embossed on the cover. As the samples become more contemporary, the material and size changes. The type of paper transitions from a matte finish, to a semi-gloss stock, to high quality gloss photo paper in some instances. The volume of each book spans from a few pages documenting a handful of class photographs, to extensive texts chronicling the school year in its entirety. The palette of colors and graphics on the cover tend to reflect the era they were printed. But as the saying goes, “don’t judge a book by its cover” for the cover can be deceiving as to the wealth of information inside.

The interior pages of a yearbook can paint a rich picture of the environment an ancestor once traversed. The hallways they walked, as well as the sights and sounds they experienced. This can be even more meaningful when researching an ancestor who held a lifelong teaching position in the area. Volumes can also feature staff rosters, where they were educated, and their years of service to the school. Yearbooks will often feature students and highlight their area of interest and sometimes contain a quote or two. The extent of photos and information on sports teams, clubs, and class events is a gold mine in the effort to tell an ancestor’s story. Notable campus buildings, pictures of classrooms, and labs can also make an appearance depending on the institution. The yearbook photo also provides a clearly identifiable shot of an ancestor. This can serve as an excellent base photograph to make identification possible when viewing other family photographs. With the large family sizes of the past, siblings in lower or higher grades may also make an appearance, further adding to the story. The important thing to remember is that one size does not fit all with yearbooks and each school may have different traditions which lead to unique content not found in any other publication.

The yearbook collection of the HGSIC covers more than one hundred years of the student experience in Indiana County and is available to researchers in the Helman Library. With that in mind, our yearbook collection is incomplete. If you have a volume that is not located in our library, we would be thrilled to add it to our records. Fortunately, more researchers are recognizing the importance of this valuable source and digital copies are slowly making their way online. If you are just looking for names and dates, there are plenty of resources out there documenting adult life. But if you want a vibrant catalogue of the formative years, the yearbook is the way to go. There is no telling how yearbook culture will change thanks to social media, but one thing is certain, humans are fascinated with documenting the past and ensuring that their treasured memories are around for future generations to see.

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