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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Who's in the Picture?
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 02, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Families in general hold a gold mine that unfortunately is often overlooked, even when it is right in front of them. What am I talking about? I am talking about family photos.

Go ahead and admit it. Every time the family gets together, the flashbulbs are popping. Most of us remember family gatherings from when we were children. We know that photos were taken. We may now be the keeper of those photos.

Families hold a genealogical gold mine in the family photos they have.

Taking the Photos

Every year families take hundreds of pictures. Usually we get them developed soon after the event. However, very few of us take the time to write down the date of the event, the event and the names of those who appear in the photo on the back. And yet, as genealogists, we are the first to complain when we come upon older family photos and there are no names.

Why don't people write the names on the back of the photos?

Well, we know who is in the photo. We are certain that we will always know who they are. I confess I do the same thing from time to time. I am too busy, so I put them aside. I am sure I will remember everyone the next time I pick up those pictures. And yet, that isn't always true. Or worse yet, something prevents you from ever picking up those pictures again.

The Future of Those Photos

Not to be fatalistic, but we cannot assume that we, or our parents or grandparents who know the names of the people in the pictures, will be around forever. We don't like to think of the alternative. And yet, by thinking of ourselves as immortal, we do our future generations a disservice where these pictures are involved.

It is important to include the names of everyone in the photo (and be sure to include rows or left-right directions). While this is enough to make most genealogists smile with happiness, you can make them positively giddy by including the date of the picture and the event, if there was one.

The Future Thanks You

Then when you or your children or grandchildren are looking through the family photos, they will not only thank you, but they will enjoy the pictures all the more. Suddenly the unknown faces are known. The silent glimpses into history are a look at your own family.

One caution when including information on the back of the pictures is what you use to write on them. We are all tempted to use some sort of ink pen or marker, especially those that state they are permanent. The best thing to use is a special pencil. This will not bleed through and damage the picture and it won't get washed away or change color as the years go by. They can be found at document preservation companies. They will allow you to document the picture without ruining it.

In Conclusion

So when you sit down to look through the set of pictures you just picked up, remember to grab a pencil. And while you are oohing and aahing, be sure you are also scribbling names on the back.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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