Old yearbooks: Historical value?
March 26, 2012 10:39 AM   Subscribe

Do old yearbooks (mostly 1930s and 40s) have any historical value?

I fished about ten of them out of a recycling bin, and intend to reuse their covers in homemade sketchbooks. Some of the yearbooks are really beautiful, others are just interesting. Am I about to destroy something I shouldn't?
posted by compartment to Grab Bag (10 answers total)
Schools sometimes copies of old yearbooks on file for alumni, current students, etc. You may want to contact the school and see if they actually have/want to have the ones you found. For whatever reasons -- moving, natural disasters, carelessness -- they may have lost copies of old (and obviously irreplaceable) yearbooks and would love to have them back

From personal experience: Carl Sagan went to my junior high, and one of the APs once showed me his picture in the yearbook. I really treasure that moment. So if you return them, you might make some kid's day some time.
posted by griphus at 10:45 AM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Schools sometimes keep copies..."
posted by griphus at 10:45 AM on March 26, 2012

If you really want to be thorough you could contact each school (or the local public library in each school's town) and ask if they have any use for them. Sometimes, for any number of reasons, the school does not have a copy of one year's yearbook and really would like to have it. Historical societies sometimes like to have them too.
posted by mareli at 10:46 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some yearbooks end up getting scanned and made available online. Ancestry.com has a database of them. Not sure how they get there, but my mom was thrilled when I found her father's senior yearbook pages online. He died when she was young and she didn't know very much about him.(Glee Club!)

It'd be super awesome if you could somehow donate scans, or the pages, and still use the covers for your project.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:57 AM on March 26, 2012

Yes, ask the local library and historical society! My library has an incomplete collection of yearbooks from the last 100 years, and it is near impossible to complete the collection. Once a yearbook has been published, it is never published again. One chance to get it...and that's it. Yearbooks are key primary resources for genealogists and family researchers. If your local library has a gap in their collection that you could fill...they would probably do a little dance of joy.

I wish our collection was complete, but I don't even actively try to find local yearbooks from decades past. The only people who have them were the students - and if they still have it, they're not likely to give it up. Most of the ones we have in the collection were willed to us (or newer ones that we buy each year, now that we've wizened up).
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:17 AM on March 26, 2012

They absolutely have quite a bit of of value for genealogists. I second the idea of scanning the cover before using it.
posted by cairdeas at 11:18 AM on March 26, 2012

Wifey and I have been sellers on eBay since the 1990s, and we've sold quite a few yearbooks online. Generally, they're not worth a *lot*, unless there's somebody famous in them or they're from a large school. You're waiting for somebody from that class who has lost their original, or a decendent looking for Grandpa's yearbook, both of which are a very infrequent customer. The ubiquity of the internet has reduced scarcity of many things, and yearbooks are one; people aren't as afraid of them being lost forever as they used to, and enough people have them up for sale, or schools have started scanning and making them public on the internet, that there's not a huge demand now.

So, for your expected project: I'd say, no, don't worry that you're destroying a valuable archive for which there is no replacement. Schools printed hundreds of them, so somebody else out there has one in their basement. However, as others have noted, there's plenty of people who might want one intact, so don't assume they're trash like the person who tossed them in recycling thought.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:22 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm doing my disseration on adaptive reuse of historic buildings. One of my case study building is on a college campus and there is nothing better than college yearbook for showing pictures of the campus in various stages throughout the years. So to answer your question, yes.

Like others have suggested you might want to contact libraries and local historical societies to make sure these aren't needed before you destroy them. But the big problem is that the people who could find information in them, might not know they need them yet. If you'd asked me last year about yearbooks I would have hesitated on their value, but now, after plowing through decades of them, I'm firmly in the "major primary source" camp.

Not only do yearbooks tell you who went to a school and what the campus looked like, they also show a clear picture what society was like at the time. Because yearbooks are designed to be heirlooms and memorybooks, they show what a group wanted to remember or what they thought was important. In doing that, there's a ton of information about the culture that isn't preserved elsewhere.

Left up to me, I'd suggest you save them rather than repurpose them. But it probably won't be the end of the world if they are lost.
posted by teleri025 at 11:34 AM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

There may be volunteer labor out there willing to scan the book for posterity and then return it to you for your project. That's what I was getting at.

I'm hoping it's not an either/or.
posted by vitabellosi at 11:59 AM on March 26, 2012

Wow, thanks for the great answers. Don't know why it didn't occur to me to call historical societies. I've already got one book that found a new home in the local history collection at the Grand Rapids public library. Meanwhile the historical society in Fulton, Illinois is checking to see which yearbooks I have that they're missing.

Feelin' like a good citizen, and glad that I wasn't too hasty to cut up these books.
posted by compartment at 12:07 PM on March 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

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