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What do you know about your ancestors’ schooling? Did your grandparents study in a one-room country school? Did some relatives go to college? Were any of them teachers?
The answers may lie in school records: yearbooks, class photos, report cards and graduation announcements that you and your relatives may have in your possession. Obituaries, local histories and personal interviews can also provide valuable information about your relatives’ education.
Fortunately, many of those education-related sources are now online. Here’s where to find yearbooks and school records online, and what I’ve been able to uncover about some of the scholars in my own family. Throughout, a dollar sign ($) indicates a site that requires a fee to access at least some resources.
School Records on the Big Genealogy Websites
First up are the school records on each of the “Big Four” genealogy websites.
Begin your search for school-related collections by going to Search > All Collections, then selecting Schools, Directories & Church Histories from the Explore by Collection column. Use the form to search all school-related collections from various countries at once, or click on “View all in Card Catalog” to select a specific category. You could also go to the Card Catalog directly and use filters or keywords to find relevant collections; school records are in the Directories and Member Lists category, or you could filter by the school’s location.
Ancestry.com’s largest relevant collections are of US yearbooks (1900–1999), US school catalogs (1765–1935), and Canadian yearbooks (1901–2010). Most collections can be searched by name, but a few (such as “South Dakota, U.S., School Records, 1879–1970”) are browse-only.
That first collection, “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900–1999” includes more than 450,000 yearbooks from a variety of schools, from elementary-level through universities. The collection is part of Ancestry.com’s hinting tool, so the site may provide record hints for people in your Ancestry.com family tree. A search for Stewart Rounds (born in 1922) turns up his portrait in a 1942 yearbook for New York’s South Side High School, in which Rounds is lauded for being “sociable and versatile…popular with everyone” and skilled at performing “a Carmen Miranda number or an Egyptian dance.”
To better search the collection, try entering the school’s location under “Lived In” or part of the school’s name as a keyword. Try different combinations of search terms if you don’t get a match in the site’s yearbooks.
I know John Dana Tasker was a member of the Amherst College class of 1925, but a search on his name in the US yearbooks collection produces no good matches. The issue doesn’t seem to be record availability—the “Browse This Collection” section shows it includes a 1924 yearbook for Amherst College. So I searched on just the last name Tasker and keyword Amherst College, with 1924 as the yearbook date. My results included a match; as it turns out, only his last name was indexed for that picture of the press club, with the full name appearing on the next page. John would later become a senior editor of Time magazine.
A search of Ancestry.com’s collection of US college student lists for the last name Olmsted and school name Knox College with both fields checked for “exact” produces more than a dozen matches. One record is for my great-grandfather S. Armstrong Olmsted, who’s listed in a directory as having attended the Knox College academy in 1873 and 1874. (If I didn’t know his school’s name, I could have searched the collection on just the name Armstrong Olmsted.)
To find school records, go to FamilySearch’s list of collections, then enter the word school in the box.
FamilySearch’s US school records are organized by county or state, rather than in one large nationwide collection. The largest single collection of school records—“Oklahoma, School Records, 1895–1936”—has more than three million images and includes primarily annual censuses of pupils.
One local collection (“Minnesota, Clay County, School Census Records, 1909–1962”) happens to cover the county where my family has lived for several generations. Details include the students’ dates of birth and parents’ names. A search for my last name, Crume, produces more than 350 results, all of whom seem to be relatives of mine.
FamilySearch also holds a large collection of 500,000 digitized books, including many yearbooks (or Search > Books). A search on the uncommon surname Kalinoff produces 38 results, among them, the Alumni Directory (Carleton College) 1874–1953. To search the book’s text, I click View Inside, then the looking glass icon. Listings include addresses for several Kalinoff alumni. Another Books result is a senior portrait of Vacil Kalinoff in Carleton College’s 1943 yearbook, The Algol. He’s noted as “always [taking] pleasure in arguing with his professors.”
FamilySearch also has a more-personal kind of school record: students’ “souvenirs.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teachers often gave students an annual three- or four-page booklet that included a photo of the teacher and a list of students, plus the name of the school. You can find them among FamilySearch Memories, which are user-uploaded personal anecdotes and media items often linked to people in the FamilySearch Family Tree.
To search for a souvenir, click on Memories > Find and search on school souvenir plus another term, such as a school name or a township. I uploaded one from the 1902–03 school year that includes many of my relatives; you can find it by searching Stockwood School souvenir. You’re more likely to find school souvenirs in the hands of your relatives or in local archives, but it’s worth checking FamilySearch, too.
Findmypast has substantial collections of school-related records from the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand and Canada (mostly Ontario). Click on Search > Education & Work, then Schools & Education. Look for the “Browse Record Set” link next to the Record Set field.
In order to find potential distant relatives related through my immigrant ancestor James Pennington from Kendal, England, I searched on the last name Pennington and the keyword Kendal. Most of the 47 matches are in a collection called “National School Admission Registers & Log-Books 1870–1914.” Those records list students in England and Wales, as well as dates of birth, the schools they attended, and sometimes parents’ names and father’s occupation.
From the MyHeritage home page, click Research > Search All Records and, under “What type of records are you looking for?,” the right arrow. Then select Schools & Universities. This category includes two large yearbook collections, “U.S. Yearbooks, 1890–1979” and “U.S. Yearbooks Name Index, 1890–1979.” They include mostly high school yearbooks, but also some from elementary schools, middle schools and junior high schools. Both collections are free—no subscription required.
The Schools & Universities search form covers all the relevant record collections, including yearbooks and school records from Queensland, Australia. I find it more efficient to search the whole Schools & Universities category than individual yearbook collections. If you know the school’s location, you could try putting a city or state in the Place or Publication Place box.
Searching on the last name Crume and place Spokane, I find various relatives in yearbooks of Spokane, Wash., area schools. My cousin Conley Crume’s senior portrait in the 1962 yearbook of Rogers High School in Spokane says he was active in the “F.B.L.A.” (Future Business Leaders of America).
A search on the last name Olmsted with place North Dakota also turns up a lot of relatives. The 1966 Bismarck High School yearbook has a picture of Gary Olmsted in his basketball uniform and notes that he was a 5-foot-11 center. (Other pages reveal he also played football.) I like how MyHeritage automatically colorizes yearbook photos, but you can easily return to the original black-and-white versions if you prefer.
Online Yearbook Collections
We’ve already discussed yearbooks, but other publications can detail your ancestors’ school years. Here are some resources that hold specifically yearbooks or other school periodicals.
A social networking site founded in 1995, Classmates.com allows you to search more than 400,000 yearbooks from 25,000 schools, some dating back to 1886. Search just yearbooks (as opposed to users and schools) by selecting All Yearbooks from the search drop-down. A search on my last name produces hundreds of results, but I can winnow it down by filtering by state to North Dakota. (You can also filter by city and decade.)
I found entries for Lorraine Crume in the 1938 and 1940 yearbooks of Fargo Central High School. Her senior photo indicates she was pursuing “Pre-Secretarial” studies and playing doubles tennis. (She would go on to become a state tennis champion.) Classmates.com doesn’t allow you to download individual pages, but I used the Windows snipping tool to screenshot an entry. (You can do the same on Macs or mobile.)
The yearbooks on Classmates.com are free to access, though you’ll need to register with the site to search. (Note: Registering makes you discoverable by other users, and you have to register with your real name and a school’s graduating class year.) You can upgrade to a paid membership for more features, such as messaging.
This subscription site gives you access to millions of high school, college and military yearbooks. You’ll need a paid subscription ($19.95 per year or $4.95 per month) to browse pages or view close-up search results.
I got the best results by putting quotation marks around a name to search on the exact phrase, then trying different versions. I got no matches on a general search for “DuBois Cornish,” but one on “DuBois H. Cornish” when I searched within the 1917 yearbook of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
Subscription site Fold3 is best known for its military records. Among its collections are more than 100 free-to-search military yearbooks. As reported in the May/June 2022 issue of Family Tree Magazine (page 6), Fold3 is actively recruiting users to submit their own military yearbooks (as well as unit histories and military journals) for digitization on the site, all of which will remain free to access.
Google Books provides access to millions of digitized books, including many yearbooks and alumni directories. You can view books in the public domain in their entirety and previews or snippets of other (copyrighted) books, and an advanced search page gives you more discover options.
You might find relevant matches just by searching on an uncommon name. Searching on Mary Ada Cornish in the box for “with the exact phrase” turns up matches in several Syracuse University catalogs.
Mary’s profile in the 1911 Alumni Record and General Catalogue of Syracuse University holds a detailed account of her life: her birth date, degree (bachelor’s of music) and graduation year, professional history (teaching at Centenary Collegiate Institute), marriage date and place, spouse name, and death date and place.
If you’re researching a common name, you might have to add another search term, such as a place or the name of a college.
HathiTrust Digital Library
The 17 million digitized volumes in this free collection include yearbooks and alumni directories. Select “Full-text” to search for terms anywhere within the text of the books.
The collection includes even niche publications, and local or county histories can provide details on subjects’ education. I wanted to know where Dennis Nelson Cooley, a judge, went to law school, so I searched HathiTrust using his name as an exact phrase. One result is a biography in 1894’s Portrait and Biographical Record of Dubuque, Jones and Clayton Counties, Iowa, which says, “When fifteen years of age Judge Cooley left home, and after studying in the Newbury Seminary of Vermont, prepared for college. In 1850 he entered the office of Hon. H. F. Stoughton, and after studying law three years, was admitted to the Bar, in 1854.” That suggests he studied law through an apprenticeship, not by attending law school.
The Internet Archive
You can search and download more than 20 million books and texts, including yearbooks and alumni directories, from the Internet Archive. Search options include by metadata (e.g., publisher or university) or text contents (e.g., names written within a volume).
Elmer D. Olmsted, born in 1849, was a doctor. From the Internet Archive home page, I entered his name surrounded by quotation marks and selected “Search text contents.” The 34 results include his biography in a history of Spokane published in 1912, which says that Elmer graduated from the Missouri Homeopathic Medical College of St. Louis and began his practice in Plymouth, Ill., in 1877. It adds that he lost “all of his personal effects” in the Great Spokane Fire of 1889, shortly after moving to the city.
One of the best sources of information on alumni are archives maintained by the individual schools themselves. Many of them have digitized yearbooks and class registers, then placed them online. Look to the school’s website for mention of an archive, and consider contacting staff for information about an alumnus.
Here are a few examples of what school archives can hold. You can learn more about research at college and university archives here.
Amherst College, Amherst, Mass.
In addition to Emily Dickinson’s books and manuscripts, the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College have digitized yearbooks from 1859 to 2012. Though you can’t search the text of yearbooks, you can browse them.
Hamline University, St. Paul, Minn.
Hamline University Archives: Digital Collections has school catalogs from 1880 to 1950 and yearbooks from 1892 to 2008. A search of that collection on Sadie Grant turns up a senior photo in the 1914 yearbook, captioned: “Sadie is a real scholar. She can roll off Latin by the yard, and college math came right along without making the least fuss, when it found out who was taking it. Moreover, she is a girl whom one can depend upon in emergencies.” Click a result to download the page as a PDF.
Knox College, Galesburg, Ill.
The Knox College Special Collections and Archives has student records from 1844 to the present. They’re not online, but you can get digital copies for a fee. Joseph Taylor, the Archivist and Special Collections Librarian, says that the volume of information “varies depending on the student and their involvement. Some students do not have a file, where others have a few items, and even others an entire box. Our student series is arranged by year and filed alphabetically.”
Many yearbooks, alumni directories and other school records are easily accessible online. Your diligent “homework” (finding them) will help you gain not a diploma, but a better understanding of the scholars in your family tree.
A version of this article appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Family Tree Magazine.