top of page

Saved By the Bell: How Echoes of your Ancestors' Pasts Lie in their Education.

If you were anything like me in school, you probably dreaded getting report cards—but, if you’re a genealogist, they can be treasure troves of contextual information when studying your ancestor of choice. In fact, for professional genealogists like Nick Barrett (author of the book in our February Book Group this year), they’re not just interesting--they’re necessary to perform what the Board of Certification for Genealogists call an “exhaustive search”--a cornerstone of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Where do We Find Them?

Of course, knowing that such things exist is entirely different from knowing where they exist. Luckily, scholastic records abound in the most popular genealogical research tools used today— has an entire catalogue devoted to school lists and yearbooks from the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe (see:, and has its own list of late-19th/early 20th-Century school registers for England and Wales (see: If you’re looking for more recent family history—or just an excuse to make fun of your parents’ yearbook photos, then all it takes is a bit of internet scouring. In addition to allowing you to reconnect with old peers,, according to its homepage, has “[t]he largest collection of high school yearbooks…300,000 books, with 5,000 being added every month[,]” in both the U.S. and Canada. Lastly, any of the other genealogical resources you’re already familiar with (or, will soon become familiar with!) are likely to have something to do with your ancestors’ schooling: state libraries and archives, county or district-wide historical societies, the local county clerk’s office—essentially, anywhere you’re likely to find vital records. Just search “school census” as a starting point, and modify search terms as needed. If Grandpa was a star quarterback, talented actor, or prodigal speller, you can even use to look for their accomplishments immortalized in the local tribune. Needless to say, scholastic records are nowhere near sparse in the genealogical community.

What’s Inside Them?

So, you’ve found your scholastic record of choice, and you’re wondering what to look for. As the name implies, a school census (one of the most readily-available resources of this type), will contain the names of a given child and their parents, their siblings, age, and biological sex, in addition to their race; however, some other interesting details present themselves. Take a look at the following excerpt from the Arizona School Census Records, dated 1910 from 1917 (all on Ancestry):

While the enumerator for this census has conveniently neglected to fill out this section, it does reveal something valuable—that these types of records can be used in a pinch to reveal an ancestor’s location—say, for 1890-1899, where the U.S. national census may not exist. In addition, they provide a great deal of context for the period in question. For instance, look at this column from that very same census:

This reveals three things:

  1. That the deaf and blind were at least being incorporated into the Arizona public school system by the early 20th Century, if they hadn’t been, already.

  2. That such demographics were deemed worthy of being recorded as, well, demographics unto themselves, hinting at the perceived need for (or existence of) special education programs.

  3. Deafness and mental impediment had not yet been treated as independent of each other.

Moving away from censuses, other valuable cultural tidbits collected from educational settings can be gleaned. Take, for example, these select pages from the yearbook of Depauw University in 1930:

What such yearbooks lack in the “raw” data genealogists look for, they make up for not only in aesthetic appeal, but clearly indicated photographic information:

Fashion trends and hairstyles, to be sure, but also things that can ground a client in their family’s pasts—give them glimpses of their bloodline they would not otherwise have, beyond the numbers and maps. While you may not use such records as significant pieces of a genealogical evidence, they are undoubtedly and palpably valuable to clients for their visual appeal and thus, deserve investigation alongside other less obscure resources.

Now, Open your Books…

In Nick Barrett’s The Forgotten Spy: The Untold Story of Stalin’s First British Mole, the spy in question had parents and grandparents from schoolteaching backgrounds. Want to see the use of these records in the hands of a professional, celebrity genealogist? Then don’t hesitate to grab a copy of the book and read along with us!


  1. All census photos: Arizona, School Census Records, 1910-1917 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016.

  2. All yearbook photos: U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1990 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

bottom of page