Wanted: U.S. Genealogy Database with Photographs

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 1, 2017

Friday, I attended my Aunt Louise’s funeral. She was the last living aunt on my mother’s side, dying at 94. One thing I like about funerals is seeing the photographs family members bring to the funeral. My mother was one of five sisters, and all the cousins have photographs the other cousins don’t. Especially photos of our grandparents and great grandparents. Plus each aunt & uncle had pictures of nieces & nephews some cousins have never seen. After the funeral my cousin Reed called and asked me if I had any photographs of our grandfather holding a corn cob pipe. He had a memory of seeing such a picture, but didn’t know who owned it. I only had three photos of our grandfather in my digital collection, and none were with a pipe.

[My mother’s parents probably taken in the 1950s. I’ve lost count of all their descendants.]

This got me to thinking. There should be a national genealogy database where people can upload family photos. I inherited my mother’s family photos. I have no children. There’s a good chance if I died, my wife would just toss them out. I will try to give them to my nephew, or his daughters, but I’m not sure if young people want them. It would be a shame for such artifacts of history to disappear.

Imagine logging into the U.S. Genealogy Database at the Library of Congress (it doesn’t exist) and looking up your great grandparents. What if besides showing when they were born and died, the names and dates of their parents and children – it showed photographs and documents with annotations. This shouldn’t be an impossible task. I doubt there’s been more than 1-2 billion Americans to ever live. A big number, but not for computers. Photography didn’t exist for most of our country’s history, but for the part that did in the 19th and 20th centuries, most of those photos have already been lost. We should try to save what’s left, especially while the people live who can identify the subjects in the photos.

If everyone submitted photographs of people they can identify, soon we’d have a large enough database that an artificial intelligence could begin identifying unknown subjects. Historians could go to flea markets, buy a box of old photographs, upload them to the system, and in some cases, the AI could identify them. Wouldn’t that be far out?

What if you logged into the USGDB and searched on your parents and discovered their friends had submitted photographs with your folks in them you had never seen before. Wouldn’t that be cool too? What if everyone you ever went to school, dated, or worked with submitted photos that you were in, and the AI linked them to you? What if the AI found every class and school photo ever taken of you and your family. Just before my Aunt Louise died she identify three people in this photo. If my USGDB system existed, it might eventually identify everyone. [Double click for larger view.]

1927 photo_600dpi

Goodbye Aunt Louise. She’s the redhead posing with my mother Virginia. We will all miss you.



4 thoughts on “Wanted: U.S. Genealogy Database with Photographs”

  1. Hi James

    A lovely thought. This year my Christmas card from my aunt contained three tiny B & W photos one from the early 1960’s of myself and my three siblings and two of me at two years old, one in a crib and one with my folks from the late 50″s. I spoke to my sister and she got a photo of herself from the same aunt. My sister also sent me two CD’s of family photos one a copy of a VHS of a trip our other sister took to Greece before she died of cancer. I have boxes of photos and I am not sure what will become of them. One thing I was I reminded of was I seemed to have a rather square head as a child.

    All the best.

  2. This is a fabulous idea! I’m surprised Ancestry.Com hasn’t thought of it. I too have no children and my nieces and newphews , I don’t think care about it and then their children even less so, but somewhere someone might or just to see people from the past and and get a view of what life was like in simpler times.

  3. Hello James

    There is a great danger that my comment to your post will turn into a full length blog of my own, but your post resonated with many of mypreoccupations so strongly that I will risk a few brief remarks. As a blind person desperate to keep memories alive, to keep all my beloved dead alive in some way, I feel keenly the absence of visual prompts in my life of people that have gone – of children who are now adults and all but unrecognizable as the children they were.
    And you’d think that I would earlier in my life have foreseen this day when so many would be gone forever, that I would have tried harder to make voice recordings and tried even harder to keep the few I made. And so for me the only more or less tangible proofs that there was a past in which I was younger and my parents and brother was alive, is the music that characterised that time. I listen avidly to the music that was popular in the forties and fifties. It has to stand in for the clothes and cars and hairstyles for faces, and expressions and bodies of which I can know nothing. This seems to me to be a greater loss than say not seeing the stars or a sunset, or even our famous Table Mountain. To me they are abstractions that mean things in other people’s lives. Without photographs there is nothing against which to test your memory, or with which to feed it, but your imperfect memory itself.

    1. Reinette, I’m constantly looking for evidence to validate my memories. I can completely understand why you’d want sound recordings. I wish I had some, or videos of so many people. I really wish I had taken more photographs. I’ve written about that desire in other posts. We take pictures of people, but what I realize now is I wish I had pictures of buildings, houses, rooms, objects, yards, and places. I wish I had pictures of all my schools, houses I lived in, my favorite libraries, my pets. It’s all gone. In one of my blogs I wrote about how I don’t have visual memory. I learned only last year that most people can close their eyes and see things. I can’t.

      I assume you once saw, and now are blind? Do you have good visual memory?

      I don’t trust my memory. Read The Art of Memoir and Jesus Before the Gospels for why I no longer trust my memory. I love photographs, and now that you mention it, I’d love sound recordings or videos. Anything that helps me to remember.

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