Ryan Taylor Yearbooks help capture the past


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By Ryan Taylor

School yearbooks are a joy and a pain.

Every library where I have worked has had some, and people come in regularly to examine them. They want to look up themselves and their friends. Young people want to see what their new boyfriend looked like in grade nine. Television cameramen need a picture of a criminal or a victim of accidental death.

Genealogists can use yearbooks too. They give us a glimpse into the youthful world of our relations - perhaps our parents or grandparents. Perhaps it is only a cousin. They are a prime source for old photographs.

Using a yearbook, we can reconstruct a moment of our family's past. We have a picture, a few facts about clubs, sports or student council involvement.

The pain part belongs to the libraries involved. Many librarians find collecting yearbooks to be too difficult. They are hard to get hold of. (Why do schools make it so difficult for the public library to buy their yearbook?) They take up a lot of room.

And, interestingly enough, they are among the most vandalized books in the library. Those people in search of a photo of their new boyfriend in grade nine want to take it away with them.

The Kitchener Public Library has a substantial collection of high school yearbooks. The Waterloo Public Library collects those from Waterloo Collegiate but not its other schools. Cambridge Public Library has none and is unaware if old Galt and Preston yearbooks are available anywhere.

Why would a serious researcher be interested in finding a yearbook? After all, we know whether granny graduated from high school, and we have teenaged pictures of her already.

It is surprising what turns up. One of my favourite high school pages dates from the 1950s. It shows a group of sixteen and seventeen year old boys in basketball uniforms-a fairly typical team. What makes it different is that every boy's height and weight are given.

That fact - how much grandad weighed when he was sixteen - adds an interesting dimension to the family history.

My own grandfather weighed 200 pounds when he was sixteen. He was proud of it and still boasted about the fact when he was over seventy. On the other hand, he didn't play basketball.

Descriptions of old-time basketball players (from the 1920s) often included information about their special skills and shots. These were always complimentary.

In more raffish times, the 1940s and 1950s, the descriptive paragraphs about the graduates might mention special skills such as "Don Juan" or "She only has eyes for Paul" along with their appearances in the school play and membership in the French Club.

Yearbooks contain pages of candid photographs, quite unlike the studious, hair-combed version of people in the graduates' section. In the age of scanning, it is easy to transfer these funny images into our computers for use in later publications.

Many people asked their friends and teachers to autograph their yearbooks. The library where I work, which collects yearbooks from across Canada and the United States, keeps a copy of any yearbook which comes our way that includes signatures. That adds to the genealogical value.

Most yearbook autographs only say "Best wishes" or "Have a good summer" but occasionally we find something more. For instance, if you know Diane Tekatch who went to Cathedral School in Hamilton in 1968, you might ask her why Marg Byrdriak wrote, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, without ...'s lips, Diane's would turn to rust." And who was ...?

Posted January 24, 2006
Column copyright © 2006 Ryan Taylor

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