How Come No One Has an Old Picture 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 delicatessen. The first place to check is with your local library, museum, or 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 playground. Why not? Isn’t that their job?

For an organization to have 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, distribution, or storage. Consider this thought experiment: even though photography is now free, what did you NOT take pictures of this week? This year? This may help you appreciate what our predecessors did not photograph, back when they were limited by chunky cameras, 12 to 36 exposures per roll of film, and the expense of developing and printing or even hiring a professional photographer. There is no guarantee that a person with a camera documented any particular person, place, 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 a photograph, 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 that exists only in a shoebox in someone’s closet and make them 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 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 knows only that it has 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 maybe imposes some sort of order on them. Once the organizing and metadata labor (called 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 provide 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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