How Come No One Has Old Pictures of My House?

Illustration of woman with camera courtesy of Pixabay

Or maybe you’re looking for an old picture of your playground, corner tavern, or favorite neighborhood deli. The first places to check are your local library, museum, and historical society. Maybe it turns out that they have thousands of old pictures but they don’t have your house or your deli or your tavern. Why not? Isn’t that their job?

For an organization to provide an old photograph, five things need to happen, in this order:

  1. Someone has to take a photograph of that person, place, thing, or event. Today, thanks to advanced cell phones, nearly all of us carry portable cameras everywhere we go. We can take unlimited numbers of instant, good-quality color pictures and videos without having to pay for film, developing, printing, sharing, or storage. Consider this thought experiment: even though photography is now free, what are all the things did you NOT take pictures of today? This may help you appreciate the pictures that our predecessors did not take, back when they were limited by bulky cameras, 12 to 36 exposures per roll of film, and the expense of developing and printing or hiring a professional photographer. There is no guarantee that someone with a camera was present to document any particular person, place, thing, or moment. Even newspapers and broadcast outlets, who have full-time photographers & videographers on staff, cannot be everywhere.
  2. Someone has to save that photograph. And not discard it or lose it in a fire or a flood.
  3. Someone has to ID that photograph. Ever inherit photos of long-dead ancestors and wonder who those people were because no one wrote names & dates on the back? Old photographs are useless without metadata, a word that means “information about information.” In the case of photographs, metadata is everything you hope is written on the back: who, what, where, when. Unidentified photographs often end up in recycle bins or yard sales. They make delightful decor and art project fodder but they’re of little value to researchers, libraries, archives, or museums.
  4. Someone has to donate that photograph. No matter how good a curator, archivist, or librarian is, they cannot find a photo if it exists only in a shoebox in someone’s closet. They cannot make that someone fork it over. Granted, some municipalities commissioned photographs of all properties in their jurisdiction for tax purposes. New York City did so. I know of no such effort at Buffalo City Hall. If your city or town government, with all of its logistical, labor, and funding advantages, did not attempt any mass photography projects like this, you can assume that a small library or historical organization, which might have few employees or an all-volunteer crew, also never accomplished it.
  5. Someone has to catalog or inventory that photograph. There’s a saying among librarians, archivists & curators: ownership is not access. An organization that owns a dozen boxes of photos donated by Mr. Smith stacked in a storage room has an inaccessible collection. They cannot tell you if there’s a picture of your house in one of those boxes until someone goes through those boxes and compiles an inventory and imposes some sort of order on them. Once the organizing and metadata labor (called processing or arrangement and description) is done, then they can consider digitizing a photographic collection. Which is a big topic for another time.

If these five steps have not occurred, then a repository cannot supply the old photo that you need. Here are some other picture research strategies to consider.


Published by Cynthia Van Ness

Librarian, author, webmaster. BuffaloResearch.com is an on-my-own-time project, reflecting my own views and idiosyncracies.

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