Thursday, January 19, 2023

Library of Congress Images Add Context to Family History

Going beyond ancestor portraits, basic facts, and stories passed down from earlier generations, a family history project might benefit from outside images that add social or historical context. The idea is to provide a more well-rounded picture [pun intended] of ancestors' lives.

That's why I've been looking at the US Library of Congress prints and photos collection. It includes a gazillion digitized images available to view, and sometimes to download, for free. Not just of America, but well beyond.

LOC prints and photographs online catalog

Start by going to the Library of Congress catalog page for prints and photos. One entire area of the collection is devoted to US Civil War images (my husband has 20+ ancestors who served on both sides of that war).

Other featured collections are listed by name on the main page. A tiny sample includes:

  • Stereograph cards
  • Wright brother's negatives
  • African American photos for 1900 Paris Expo
  • Posters from World War I

It's easy to browse specific collections and check whether any of the images are available for free download.

Search by keyword (place, subject, etc)

Another way to find suitable images for family history projects is to use the search box. At top, you can see I searched for "New York City" images and received more than 27,000 results. Most of my immigrant ancestors came through Castle Garden and Ellis Island and remained in the Big Apple, which is why I'm interested in images of the city and its people and institutions. 

I found lots of images depicting aspects of daily life in Manhattan during the first decades of the 20th century--when and where my ancestors first lived upon arrival from Eastern Europe.

Another search, for images of Jewish life in New York City, resulted in numerous results, including the collection shown in this image, covering the period when my Jewish ancestors were just getting settled in the city. 

This group of images is part of the much larger George Grantham Bain Collection. The Library of Congress notes: "The collection richly documents sports events, theater, celebrities, crime, strikes, disasters, political activities including the woman suffrage campaign, conventions and public celebrations."

Free to use and reuse

The Library of Congress has made free images very accessible with a link at bottom of its home page that leads here.

Down the rabbit hole I go, and if you're interested in images to illuminate your family's history in America (and beyond), do take a look at the Library of Congress.


  1. Posters from WWI sounds interesting and would be a good addition to my WWI soldiers study.

  2. Yes, the Library of Congress is a fantastic resources for images and beyond! Thanks for getting the word out! I use it frequently for clients, to create storybooks of their ancestors. I had just used many of the Jewish Life in America for a client, as they had so many images in New York City from that time paeriod, including images of the streets where her family had their business. I was also able to get images from their old country as well. It's fantastic! :)