School Records: Beyond Yearbooks

Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.

Kids spend a lot of time in school, generate a lot of paperwork, and encounter a lot of people. It stands to reason that school records and school-related information can be telling. Certainly, school in times past is not as we know it today, and it's more complex than what might be our image of the little red schoolhouse. Because much of school life predates marriage, school records are a great source in researching female ancestors. School records constitute a diverse and scattered body of records on students, teachers, administrators and staff in public, private and charitable institutions, from grade school through college, and from Colonial times to the present. One of the keys in researching school records is understanding the status of education in your place and time period of interest: who was responsible for providing education, who was permitted to attend (or teach) and what administrative changes occurred that might affect records. And because education says much about a community, local area histories are excellent resources to begin your research, typically charting the history of schools within an area, the names of schools and their locations, often naming early administrators, teachers and students. The School Records series, focused on education in the United States, includes information on researching School Teachers, Students and Women's Colleges, the latter comprising strategies that transfer across to all colleges and universities, male, female or co-ed.

Historically, and throughout the nineteenth century it was the citizen and not the professional educator, the local community and not the state that set the standard and determined who would teach in their schools. Certainly that has changed over the years. Understanding the evolution of the teaching profession and how teachers within a particular time and place may have received their training can guide researchers in their search for records, as discussed in School Teachers: Overview.

School records vary in type and content but can be a rich source of genealogical information. From earliest times information might be included on teacher selection and qualification, assignments and activities, contracts and transfers. In addition to official school records are school yearbooks, histories and other publications providing information on teachers and their work within a community. And not to be overlooked are the writings of students who can almost always tell you their best . . . and worst teachers. Identifying the types of school records and other sources available for researching school teachers, in training and in practice, is the focus of School Teachers: Record Types.

Unfortunately, school records are not packaged into one neat tiny bundle, tucked away in the archives of local school districts. Schools records are as scattered as they are diverse: schools come and go, boundaries and jurisdictions change, records may be destroyed, donated or otherwise transfered. Even so, many school records survive -- many can be found online or possibly referenced online, through the websites of various repositories. Tips and hints for locating school records, for teachers and students alike is the topic of discussion in School Teachers: Locating Records.

When we think of student records we immediately think of report cards and yearbooks, and because yearbooks were so widely distributed, many survive and are often one of the first resources consulted. But yearbooks are not the only place to find student information. Some student records may be hiding in plain site among your personal family records, not only grade reports but programs, pamphlets and other memorabilia, even old-school autograph books. Perhaps one of the most under-recognized sources are school census records, which can provide significant detail on students and their families. The types of student records that might exist and where to find them is discussed in Researching Students.

In researching women's colleges, it may surprise you learn that some of today's most prestigious women's colleges began as humble teaching seminaries. As a rule, women were not admitted to institutions of higher education: the one "socially acceptable" pursuit for women was teaching, but the field was limited. Over time, female colleges evolved and various types of schools emerged. Understanding more about the type of schooling available at a given time may aid in surfacing records, as discussed in Women's Colleges: Overview

Like other school records, college records vary in type and content but will almost always be interesting and provide a social context for our ancestor's lives: student, faculty or staff. College records from yearbooks to detailed administrative reports constitute remarkable resources for finding missing bits and pieces -- middle names, maiden names, home towns, spouse names, the names of parents and children, so say nothing of the course of study and accomplishments. The types of college records available and the kinds of information contained are discussed in Women's Colleges: Record Types

Finding female ancestors is one of the great challenges in genealogy. College records -- and school records, in general -- are a great source for filling in the blanks. Even if you ancestor attended for only a short time (or if you're not sure), it's worth checking. Colleges and universities are great keepers of their own history, and for colleges still in existence, the school library might be a good first place to begin your research, but don't stop there. A variety of online resources, many we use every day, can be put to use in ferreting out school records, as discussed in Women's Colleges: Locating Records

Overall, school records can be pure gold in researching our ancestors lives. At a minimum an examination of education within a community tells us much about the life and times, who stood at the head of the classroom, how they were trained (or not) and who was privileged to attend. And with a little extra effort and some creative research, examining teachers to learn more about students or vice versa, you may discover a new details, new insights and perhaps that moment of "delight" when findings exceed expectation.

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