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The Value of Yearbooks

The history of Knoxville included in the 1925 Knoxunior Yearbook

Back when I was in elementary and middle school, one of the things I looked forward to most was getting my yearbook at the end of the year. We’d be let out of class early so we could go around and get our friends to sign our yearbooks. It was a fun time and I’m sad I don’t have mine from elementary school anymore. Back then I valued my yearbooks because of that big social event and getting out of class, but now I see themas a valuable source of records and a time capsule for historical cultural trends.

Amistad has a small collection of yearbooks which span from 1925 to 1979. To keep myself from spending the entire day looking at yearbooks, I narrowed it down to four. First, I looked at the 1925 yearbook from Knoxville College located in Knoxville, Tennessee entitled The Knoxunior. The historically black college was founded in 1875, but unfortunately is indefinitely closed today. This yearbook was published during the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the school, and thus had many references to the school’s history.

Splash page for the English department from the 1959 Booker T. Washington High School Yearbook

Next, I perused the 1959 yearbook from Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans, Louisiana which offered a look at a predominantly black school just one year before the New Orleans school desegregation crisis. This yearbook was especially cool because of its space age theme that captured the obsession of all things outer space that had gripped the country. As a result there was a huge emphasis on science (page 57). However, non-science subjects were not exempt; the taglines for the other departments were all space related as well.

English: How is your space age vocabulary?

Music: Sounds in space!

Social Studies: Life in space!

Xavier University 1979 Student Government Association

Yearbooks also give you a glimpse of the culture of a high school or college as well as the town itself. I looked the Rosenwald High School 1960 yearbook. The school is located in New Roads, Louisiana. There, I came across a picture of the members of a student organization called New Farmers of America which speaks to the importance of agriculture. As far as cultural trends though, I confess that the yearbooks I most looked forward to examining where the ones from the 1970s and the Xavier University Yearbook of 1979 did not disappoint. Like the Knowunior yearbook, it was published on the school’s fiftieth anniversary. It included bell bottoms, fun prints, and impressive afros as it documented Xavier’s vibrant campus life. [yea0003] The yearbook also contained pictures of New Orleans playwright Chakula Cha Jua in a production of a Raisin in the Sun.

Photograph of the 1960 New Farmers of America Club from the Rosenwald High School Yearbook

According to an article entitled “In the Facebook era, will printed yearbooks survive?” physical yearbooks are still very much in demand—a demand that has largely been unaffected by social media and other technology. While the number of college yearbooks declined, people still value the feel of a physical book in an era where photographs are rarely printed our and mostly stay in the digital realm. Another student said they wanted a physical yearbook because who knows if the internet will be around in ten years.

As an archivist who regularly encounters the difficulties in preserving digital objects, I chuckled at that comment, but it is still clear that physical yearbooks still hold a place in people’s hearts.

Image from the Yearbook collection. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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