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Dating Old Photos
Dated Imprints
Public Domain

NOTICE: A greatly expanded and PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED version of this material is being prepared as an ebook - watch this space for availability announcements.

Using Local Resources

There are two classes of local resources of interest to you -- those local to the area you happen to live, and those local to the photographer you are researching. When the two coincide, everything is much easier, but we can not always manage to engineer that. Either way, the kinds of resources available are similar, differing more in extent than nature. You should become familiar with these resources for your local area, both to know what may be available, and to get an idea of what to look for in other locations when you visit them.

There is such a wealth of material online that it is easy to think you should be able to do all your research from the comfort of your home -- but despite its immensity, the online world is still only a pale reflection of the vast universe of all information available. It is also good to look at real photographs sometimes, to get a feel for their three-dimensional qualities that are not evident in digital copies. Card thickness, for example, is an important dating clue for card mounted images, but that detail is rarely evident from scans. Distinguishing between ambrotype and tintype when they are in cases can be difficult, but it is easier if you can hold the case in your hand and look at it from different angles, rather than view a digital reproduction. Original colors and tones often get distorted in digital copies, there is no adequate substitute for the original.


When you are in a library you can look at every page in a book -- that is way better than Google Books 15% or 20% view. Your local library will borrow books not already in their collection, so you can access almost anything available in print.

In many towns, the main library also holds a collection of local-interest historic photographs, and may even have a complete archive of local history materials. They also often have local-history experts who can help you find whatever information you seek.

Do not forget that the public library is just one kind of library resource -- every university also has one or more libraries, and the contents of their collections is often more eclectic than one might expect. Older universities have collections going back to their founding or earlier, and often have rare and obscure publications.


Museums, particularly historical museums, are typically the custodians of local photographic collections. The knowledgeable curator can help you learn to distinquish between different types of photographs, and the collection will undoubtedly have examples of the work of many local photographers.

There are many other types of museums, and many of them have large collections of photographs as part of their materials. Transportation museums have pictures of the vehicles they feature, museums associated with National Register homes and districts have photos of the buildings and residents in earlier times, art museums sometimes feature historic photographs, and even natural history museums usually have photographs of collecting activities and people from earlier times.

Of course the best museums for our purposes are those devoted to the history of photography -- if you find one of those nearby you are fortunate indeed. If not, they are well worth the trip, make one a stop on your next vacation or business trip.


Many libraries and museums include archives, but there are many other archival collections to be found. The government has its National Archives, and most states also have their own archives, usually located in the capitol city. Counties and states may also have archives.

Many large businesses have archives, some of which are publically available, like the early Ford Motor Company materials that are kept at the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village. I visited that one with a friend once and we found a photograph of his father -- who never worked for Ford -- but did work on Ford Trimotor airplanes when employed at Pan Am.

Churches, fraternal organizations and nonprofit organizations such as historical societies, all may have archives, and have varying policies about public accesss. These are all potential sources of photographs or information about photographers or their subjects.

Collectors and Vendors

Another good place to learn more about photographs is at the Antique stores and specialty auction houses, especially those that carry large collections of photographic materials. The information one gets from vendors is highly variable in quality, and should be taken with a grain of salt until you know enough about the subject to judge the difference between expertise and creative fiction.

The serious private collector is a great resource for information, especially if their interest coincides with the subject of your search. Watch for announcements about photographic displays at meetings of the local history society, and ask vendors if they know any collectors specializing in the type of photograph you have. Many will not divulge customer information, but may pass along a note for you -- be sure to let them know you are not interested in selling the photo (if that is the case) but that you seek information. Contact local history and genealogical organizations, and ask if any of their members have an interest or expertise in the type of image, time period, or family that you are researching.

NOTICE: A greatly expanded and PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED version of this material is being prepared as an ebook - watch this space for availability announcements.

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