Report cards, yearbooks, and class photos are just a few of the records that are generated during our school-age years. Many school-related records can be found among family papers that have been saved through the years. Still others can be found online in digitized collections while many more may be part of manuscript collections at libraries and other repositories around the country.
Finding school records may take some sleuthing, but the effort will be well worth it. School records can help to place your ancestor in a certain place at a certain time, identify parents and siblings, provide an address, and even verify a birth date.
You may know the name of the school your great-grandfather attended. And you may have discovered several school-related papers in your great-grandfather’s scrapbooks. But what if you don’t know what school he attended? If you know where his family lived during his school-age years, begin with that area. Search historical records to determine what schools were in the area at the time.
Don’t restrict your search for records of school-age children. Perhaps your ancestor was a teacher. Search for higher education and teacher certification. Did your ancestor work for a school in a support staff position, such as custodian or cook? Look for school employment records. Or perhaps your ancestor served on the Board of Education or as a trustee for a specific school or for a district. School board minutes and other administrative reports can be helpful in identifying those on the administrative side of education.
Newspapers. Newspapers are a gold mine for school-related news. They are a great place to find lists of students with perfect attendance, those making excellent grades, beginning-of-year homeroom lists, end-of-year graduation lists, and more. Look at all the names on the lists you find. These were your ancestor’s friends, neighbors, and even relatives.
Announcements of holiday programs and plays may include lists of the performers. The editor may also include a summary or review of the program, again citing names of key players. The Newspapers GenGuide will help you learn more about finding and using newspapers for genealogy research.
Yearbooks. The first yearbooks began appearing in the late 1800s although they weren’t widely produced with photos until the early twentieth century. Yearbooks document a time and place in history. They can convey the social norms and dress of the day. They offer insight into our ancestors’ lives through club photos, sporting activities, and student bios.
The first place to look for yearbooks is at home. Yearbooks are often kept and treasured through the years. The lucky genealogist is the one who finds yearbooks with all those personal comments written by classmates.
To locate a yearbook for the time and place your ancestor attended school, check with the school itself first, if it is still in existence, to find out where they archive their yearbooks. Yearbooks may also be found at libraries (both public and in special collections at university libraries) and at genealogical and historical societies. These are common repositories for schools to deposit their annual yearbooks or for initiatives to collect local yearbooks for archival purposes.
There have been many local initiatives across the country to digitize yearbooks. A few examples are the Cleveland High School Yearbooks and Student Newspapers, DigitalNC North Carolina Yearbooks, and Jasper (Indiana) High School Yearbooks. There are several ways to search for a digitized collection (if one exists) for the time and place of your ancestor’s school attendance. The Cyndi’s List Yearbooks and Annuals page lists dozens of user-submitted links. You can also try a Google search using the name of the school, city, and state along with the words “digitized yearbook.” The Ancestry U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012 category is searchable by individual name, keyword, school, or yearbook title. The collection is searchable, but a paid subscription is required to view the individual digitized images.
Historical Societies and Archives. The local historical society or state archive may be the designated repository for school records in the area. Some repositories provide details of their collections online (although digitized images of records may not be available) while other repositories do not have a web presence. If a repository does not have information online, contact them by phone or mail to inquire about their collections.
School records held by historical societies vary greatly. The Trenton [New Jersey] Historical Society has some teacher’s attendance/grade books from the local high school as well as some yearbooks. The Minnesota Historical Society provides a list of their holding that includes admission books, class journals, pupil index cards, and more. The Cumberland County [Pennsylvania] Historical Society has a collection of records from the one-room schools that served several townships in the area.
The state archives can also be a goldmine for school records. The Pennsylvania State Archives has a collection of Applications for Teaching Certificates, 1866-1922 and the Colorado State Archives has various student records including school census records. While these records are not digitized and must be searched on-site, having online indexes and catalogs to locate the records is a handy first step to gain access to the records. Some archives provide detailed lists of their holdings on their websites. Many have online catalogs you can search from home. But keep in mind, not all material at all archives is cataloged. If you’re unable to find what you’re looking for on the archives website, by all means contact them by phone or through their contact form on their website to inquire about specific records.
More Online School Records
Internet Archive has digitized books you can view for free. Search for county histories, many of which have a section about schools in the area. These books are sometimes the only reference to a small rural school that no longer exists. Internet Archive also has some digitized yearbooks. Search for the town and state and include the word “yearbook” in your search string. You may also search for “state education” or “state school” (replacing the word state with the name of the state you are researching). The search results may include superintendent and board of education reports, school laws, school journals, and other reports about education within the state. These resources help to provide background that helps you to learn more about the educational environment of your ancestors.
Search Linkpendium by state, then by county. Within most county lists is a category for School Records and Histories.
The Cyndi’s List Schools page has several school-related categories: alumni organizations, Indian schools, medical schools, military schools, teachers and administrators, and many locality-specific links.
Ancestry’s Schools, Directories & Church Histories collection has school lists and yearbooks among many other community-related records.
Updated September 2017