Family history can be found in many places. We turn to steadfast repositories such as libraries, archives and historical societies. And these days we can also search online at free genealogy websites like FamilySearch, and subscription websites like MyHeritage and Ancestry. All have something unique to offer.
Most importantly, we start our search at home, talking to our oldest relatives and combing through old family papers. We then turn our attention to the family photo albums and scrapbook on the bookshelf, and old home movies if we are lucky enough to have them.
The great news is that the closets in your home are not the only place where you can potentially find old film footage pertaining to your family’s past. The largest online video repository in the world is YouTube (which is owned by Google), and it is the perfect place to look for film. That’s why I’m so excited to share some of my YouTube search strategies from my new book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 3rd Edition. These strategies can help you find old home movies (from your family or someone else’s family that came in contact with your family), news and newsreel films, documentaries, amateur and professional film footage, and countless other subjects that can shed more light on your family’s history.
How to Find Family History on YouTube in 5 Steps
Does finding your family history on YouTube sound unlikely? Believe me, it’s not. YouTube is a treasure trove if you know how to search it. Here are 5 steps from my Google Search Methodology for Genealogy and how to apply them specifically to YouTube.
Step #1. Create a Search Plan
Just like genealogy research, successful Googling, even on YouTube, requires a plan. Rather than searching willy-nilly, take a few moments to determine what it is you hope to find. Having a search plan will save you a lot of time and frustration!
The key to a good research question and plan is to be specific. This means that instead of just searching for family names or places, you have a specific event, place, and / or time frame in mind.
Below is a great example of searching with a specific plan in mind that I received from one of my Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners a while back. I have bolded the keywords that she incorporated into her YouTube search.
From Carol K.: “I really enjoyed (Genealogy Gems) Podcast (episode) #223, particularly the segment with David Haas MD. (Editor’s note: that episode covers Dr. Haas’ vast collection of old home movies and his quest to upload them all to YouTube.)
I had tried researching YouTube for something about my family, including where they settled in Connecticut. I had not come up with much when I decide to search my dad’s ship, The USS Tuscaloosa (Image 1).
Image 1: Carol’s father, Mario Ponte, served on the USS Tuscaloosa
My dad, Mario Ponte, served in the Navy from 1936-1939 (Image 2).
Image 2: Mario DaRin Ponte beside the USS Tuscaloosa – July 27, 1937
I knew he had been on a Goodwill South American Cruisein1939 (Image 3) as he talked about it often and I even have the Cruise Book from that voyage.
image 3: U.S.S. Tuscaloosa South American Good Will Cruise route April – June 1939
On a goodwill tour of South America in 1939, three US cruisers found little goodwill in this angry sea. Newsreel cameras aboard the USS San Francisco recorded this epic struggle of the ships which included the USS Quincy and USS Tuscaloosa.
I don’t recall my father ever mentioning this to me, but my husband said he had heard the story. I only wish my dad were here to share this memory with me. At least, I have been able to share this treacherous event with many in my family.
When you see the tossing, turning and huge waves in the video, I feel they were lucky to have survived. Just think, if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story today.
Thanks Lisa and David. I’m now convinced that YouTube can be used for genealogy and to add to our stories.”
Carol’s fascinating success can be directly tied to the fact that she developed a research plan focused on specific information.
2. Craft Your YouTube Search Query
As you can see, Carol didn’t just search YouTube for her Dad’s name. In fact, unless your ancestor was famous in some way, that is likely not a strategy that will pay off.
Instead, she assembled the pertinent information and used that in her query. Here are the keywords and phrases I pulled from her email:
The USS Tuscaloosa
Goodwill South American Cruisein1939
Navy from 1936-1939
I included her dad’s name in this list because it never hurts to run your ancestor’s name through a search just in case something pops up. You never know what might be on YouTube. For example, perhaps a childhood friend has uploaded an old home movie to YouTube and named him as being in the movie too!
When conducting your initial YouTube search, include all the important information. If the results are unsatisfactory, you can always remove or add search terms. Since we can’t be sure what if anything is on YouTube pertaining to our research subject, we have to be flexible, and that means expecting to run several variations of our search. We’ll talk more about that in step 3.
In Carol’s case, her research plan was focused on finding a video pertaining to the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa’s Goodwill cruise that her father participated in. She could start with a search such as:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939
The results for this search query are excellent and include the video that Carol found:
Image 4: YouTube search for family history
3. Analyze Your YouTube Search Results
Even though these results successfully delivered the video that satisfied our research plan, we would miss tremendous opportunity if we didn’t take a few extra moments to further analyze the results. You never know what else might be out there!
Here are just a few of the things you should be looking for when reviewing your YouTube results:
LOOK FOR: Should I be more specific in my search query?
Look at our search results (Image 4 above). What stands out to me is that there appear to be many different videos on YouTube about war time ships and cruisers. This is great for family historians, but it means that there are more results to look through than we might have expected.
As you have probably experienced in the past, not all the words in our search query are included in every search result we receive. There is a way to quickly and easily find only videos that specifically mention the words and phrases we want to find. By putting quotation marks around “U.S.S. Tuscaloosa” we can tell YouTube to only give us videos that mention that exact phrase.
When Google searching (and Google is the search engine under the hood of YouTube), quotation marks function as a search operator. They tell Google specific instructions about what to do with our word or phrase. In this case, they tell Google that the phrase is mandatory, and must appear exactly as typed and spelled. The one exception is the periods in U.S.S. Generally speaking, Google disregards punctuation, so it ignores the periods. It doesn’t matter whether you include them or not.
It is important to note that operators don’t always work as consistently in YouTube as they do in regular searches at Google.com. That being said, it’s great to have a variety of tools that we can use to improve our searches, and they are definitely worth a try. My book includes a wide range of additional search operators and how to use them.
Running a second search on “USS Tuscaloosa” opens many new video opportunities (Image 5):
Image 5: Search results for a query containing the quotation marks search operator.
This search not only includes the 1939 tour, but also other videos of the ship that may also be applicable to the family’s history. As you can see, sometimes less words in a search is more!
LOOK FOR: What do the unwanted video results have in common? Sometimes you may notice that you are receiving many results that are not a good match for what you are looking for. When this happens, take a look at your results and try to come up with words that are associated with the unwanted videos, and have no relevance to your goal.
Image 6 (below) is an example of search results in YouTube for the following query:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939
Image 6: Identify unwanted videos and words in the YouTube search results
While the results page includes a few good matches, it also includes current videos about quarantines on ships which is a viral topic at the time of this writing. Since these are not applicable to our search plan, we will want to eliminate them, and we will do that in Step 4.
4. Improve Upon Your YouTube Search Results
In a case like the one above (Image 6) where you are receiving several video results not applicable to your research goal, you can try literally subtract the unwanted words that you identified in Step 3 from your search. In most cases, this should remove the videos that contain those words in their title or description.
To do this, use the minus sign (-) search operator in conjunction with the word. Here’s an example of how we can do that with this search:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
This search will remove the results that mention quarantine.
You can subtract multiple words from your query if you wish. Each word should have a minus sign touching it, and there should be a space between each subtracted word as in this example:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine -princess -coronavirus
Googling, whether at YouTube, Google.com or any of the other free Google tools, is an art form, not a black and white science. We need to try variations in order to learn from what works and what doesn’t. To reach our goals, we need to try adding in more of what we want, and removing what we don’t want. In this case I would also try adding to my query that that cruise was in South America, and that the phrase USS Tuscaloosa is mandatory. Here’s what that search query would look like:
“USS Tuscaloosa” Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
Remember, we’re not going for perfect results, we’re mining all the different “veins” in the YouTube gold mine by running multiple versions of the same basic query. Feel free to experiment with mixing and matching keywords and operators. The results may be worth it!
Learn more about Google Search operators in my video:
GOOGLE GURU TIP: Conduct each variation of your search in a new browser tab. This allows you to compare the results side-by-side while retaining each query, making it easy to return to the queries that are performing the best.
You can also potentially improve upon your YouTube search results by using the Tools button to reveal the secondary filter menu. (Image 7)
Image 7: Click “Filter” to reveal the YouTube search filter options
These filters won’t prove useful in every case, but they do offer some handy options for narrowing the scope of your search.
5. Capitalize on Your Results
When you find a video that meets your research goals, there’s a good chance that the person or company that uploaded and published the video (publishers are called “Creators” by YouTube) may have more videos on that subject. Here’s a quick and easy way to find out.
On the video page, you will see the name of the Creator right below the video in the left corner. (Image 9)
Image 9: More videos found on YouTube
Click the YouTube Creator’s name. This will take you to their YouTube channel. Every Creator who has published a video has a YouTube channel. It’s sort of like their own home page for their videos. There you will be able to see and search any additional videos they have published. Click Videos to see all their videos. (Image 10)
Image 10: More videos on the Creator’s YouTube channel
If the channel has a lot of videos, click Playlists in the channel’s menu to see how they are grouped by topic. You can also search the channel for keywords and phrases by clicking the small magnifying glass icon on the far right end of the menu.
A Bright Future for Family History on YouTube
In Step 3 we analyzed the search results for Carol’s YouTube search. Let’s take another look at those results:
Image 8: Over time new videos are uploaded to YouTube waiting to be found.
It’s interesting to note that in addition to the video that Carol found which was published 4 years ago, another video on this topic was published a year later.
It’s estimated that more than 500 hours of video is being uploaded to YouTube every minute. This is up from the 400 hours per minute announced in 2015 by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Among that vast storehouse of film footage I’ve found countless videos that have enhanced my family’s story. And readers just like you email me the gems they unearth. I love receiving these success stories. Thank you to Carol for sharing hers! If you make an exciting discovery using these strategies please share them in the Comments. It will inspire us all to continue our search.
The bottom line is that the potential for finding your family history on YouTube grows dramatically minute by minute, so don’t wait another minute!
Are you using YouTube to help research and share your family history? You should be! Here are 6 practical ways and several online resources to help you do that.
YouTube is the world’s most popular online video channel and the second-largest search engine in the world. It’s now owned by Google. That means you can harness the power and flexibility of Google searching to find exactly what you’re looking for on YouTube.
Can you use YouTube for family history? Yes, in so many ways! A recent YouTube search for “genealogy” brought up 124,000 results, and “family history” brought up just slightly less. The ways you’ll use YouTube for family history are a little different than the ways you might use other search engine and “big data” genealogy websites, since every result you’re looking for is a video. But because video is such a powerful tool, when you do find something you need, it can often become one of your most valuable finds on that topic.
6 Ways to Use YouTube for Family History
Think about how to apply your own family history research to each of these ways to use YouTube for family history. Check out the many linked examples we’ve shared elsewhere on our site for more tips and inspiration:
#1 Learn more about your ancestor’s world.
Search for major historical events, images of an old ancestral town, and information about clubs, businesses, and other topics that impacted your ancestors’ lives. Was there a disaster? Find footage, like from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (that’s my own YouTube playlist because it has relevance to my ancestors), the Johnstown, PA flood of 1889 (which Contributing Editor Sunny Morton’s ancestors survived), or a disaster like this ship overturning. Click here to read a blog post by a Genealogy Gems podcast listener who hit pay dirt with historical footage on her ancestor’s town.
#2 Find your ancestors in action.
Ever since the Internet came on the scene, genealogists have been searching online for photos (or for the distant cousins possessing photos) of their family. Apply this strategy to YouTube and video. You might find them on-the-job, out-and-about in the community, or the subject of a historical news reel.Click hereto read about the stunning footage Contributing Editor Sunny Morton found on her husband’s great-grandfather.
#3 Get quick answers to specific genealogy research questions.
Got a pressing question on how to fix your Ancestry tree, or how to create crafty family history gifts? Videos on YouTube not only supply answers, but show you how. For example:
#4 Participate in online genealogy conferences from the comfort of home.
Not everyone has the time or money to attend a genealogy conference. Conference organizers understand this and are harnessing the power of online video to bring key content to users where they are.
To get started, check out the videos that feature popular conference speakers and the conference experience from channels like SCGS (Jamboree) by searching SCGS genealogy and NGS by searching NGS Genealogy in the YouTube search box or app.
#5 Make and share your own family history videos right on YouTube.
Click here to read some free tips on how to make a totally shareable video. Click here to learn more about a podcast episode and video that offer more in-depth instructions on creating a great family history video. Here are some examples of family history videos I’ve created and posted on YouTube:
#6 Learn new craft techniques and display ideas for sharing your family history.
Get crafty and creative with project ideas found on YouTube! Search for keywords such as photos, shadow boxes, quilting, scrapbooking, etc. I’ve set up a special playlist on the Genealogy Gems Channel called Family History Craft and Display Projects that is chock full of videos to get you started. Search “GenealogyGems” in the YouTube app or click here to go directly to the playlist. Recently I posted a new YouTube video that captures some highlights of projects I’ve created. You can also read Genealogy Gems blog posts that recommend YouTube videos for specific craft ideas like making a photo quilt or a message in a bottle.
Here’s a tip: When you find a YouTube channel you like, click the Subscribe button. This will set you up to be notified of new videos from that channel as soon as they are published. (Sign in to YouTube with your free Google account).
How to Get the Most Out of YouTube for Family History
Learn how to get the most out of YouTube for family history in my bookThe Genealogist’s Google Toolbox. There’s an entire chapter on YouTube! You’ll learn how to navigate your way through YouTube; conduct the best searches for videos; how to create a custom YouTube channel, playlists and home page; how to like and share videos; how to upload your own videos and more.
Pieces of your family history are on video on YouTube, and in this episode I’m showing you how to find them! Here’s what you’re going to learn:
Why you can almost be sure that there are videos on YouTube pertaining to your family’s history.
The best strategies for finding videos about your family history.
7 things to do when you find a video about some part of your family history.
How to find family history related videos on YouTube
Can you really find family history related videos on YouTube? You bet you can! Thanks to the tremendous growth in online video, your chances are better than ever. Here’s how much online video has grown in recent years:
YouTube is now the second most popular search engine next to Google.com.
Cisco reports: 2014 64% of all Internet traffic was video. The prediction for 2021 is 85%.
More than 1 billion unique users visit YouTube each month to watch and upload video.
Digitizing video is easier and more affordable than ever.
So, what kind of videos can be found that have to do with your family history? Here are just a few examples:
Old home movies. Perhaps uploaded by a close or distance family member, or a friend of the family who happened to capture your family in their home movies.
Vintage news reels and TV news broadcasts.
Your family members don’t have to be famous to show up in local news reports.
Companies often create instructional and promotional films.
Video tours. Filmed at historical locations, churches, and other places where your ancestors may have lived.
These can provide great background information about the times and places where your ancestors lived.
How to start finding family history videos on YouTube
The easiest way to get started is by selecting a person in your family tree. If you’re looking for actual film footage of the person, you’ll want to focus on more recent people in your family. However, there’s a treasure trove of videos available on YouTube so don’t worry if you’re trying to learn more about an ancestor born in 1800. You can still find all kinds of videos that can shed more life on your ancestor’s world and the life they may have led.
Once you’ve selected an ancestor, make a list of things you know about them. Here are some examples of what you could look for:
Names of associate ancestors
Places where they lived
Where they went to school
Where they worked
Events they were involved in
Hobbies / Groups / Clubs
Friends / Associates
Search your ancestor’s name at YouTube
Start by searching for your ancestor’s name in the search field at YouTube. Example search: Will Ivy Baldwin
Review the results. Keep an eye out for film footage that looks older. Hover your mouse over the results to see if words appear that further explain why you received that video as result. You may see an indication that what you searched for appears in the text of the video description (found just below the video) or the captions. If they appear in the captions, that means that someone in the video said the name you searched for! Automated closed captions are fairly new so you will find that not all videos have captions.
Next add more keywords relevant to their life. Example: Will Ivy Baldwin tightrope
Use quotation marks to get exact matches on the important words. Example: Will Ivy “Baldwin” “tightrope”. (Learn more about search operators such as quotation marks in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.)
Try variations and search multiple times. Examples:
Will Ivy “Baldwin” “tightrope”
Will “Ivy Baldwin” “tightrope”
“Will Ivy Baldwin” “tightrope”
Will Ivy “Baldwin” “Colorado”
You can also search for the phrase Home Movie and a family surname. Example search: “Home movie” “Burkett”
What to do when you find a family history video on YouTube
#1 Add to your “Watch Later” YouTube playlist.
Click the plus sign under the video and check the box for Watch Later.”
#2 Create a new playlist and add the video.
Click the plus sign and then Create New Playlist. Consider creating a playlist for each surname you research.
Click the plus sign to save to your Watch List or create a new genealogy playlist.
#3 Share to Social Media, your website, etc.
Click Share under the video.
#4 Comment to collaborate.
Comments can be found below the video description. You’ll need to be signed into YouTube with a free Google account.
#5 Subscribe to get new uploaded videos.
The red SUBSCRIBE button can be found on every video and channel. After clicking it, click the bell icon to receive notifications of new videos from that channel.
#6 Search the YouTube Channel for more related videos.
There’s a good chance if the channel has one relevant video it will have another! Click the name of the channel below the video and then on the channel page click the magnifying glass search icon.
#7 Read the video description to learn more.
The channel “Creator” who uploaded the video probably added some additional information to the video description. Click SHOW MORE to see everything. Look for recommended related videos and playlists. You may also see more details on the content of the video which you can then use to expand your search.
Expanding Your Search to Find More Family History Videos
Now it’s time to dig back into our list and continue the search. Here are some examples of how to find videos.
Search for Ancestral Locations
Search for locations associate with your family history such as cities, counties, regions, states, countries. Even if your ancestors is not in the video, it could be very enlightening to see film footage from a place they talked about or wrote about. Watching a video about the place can help bring your family history to life.
Review old newspapers, journals, family interviews and more to come up with a list of events your family was involved with. It doesn’t have to be a big event. It could be as simple as a school talent show. It’s possible that someone else who attended took home movies.
Try search for the names of business where your ancestors worked. Add in locations such as town names. Try adding the word history to help YouTube find older film footage.
In this episode of Elevenses with Lisa I shared the example of searching for Olyphant PA fire history and finding Andrew O’Hotnicky and his son in an old newsreel film about the fire stations amazing dog.
Andrew O’Hotnicky on film on YouTube.
Post Your Own Family History Videos Online
Another great way to find old videos and home movies on YouTube is to upload your own. That may sound funny at first, but the truth is that if you’re looking for family history other people are too. When you upload a video, whether it’s an old home movie or a short video you made to tell the story of one of your ancestors, it’s great “cousin bait.” When someone else searches for the same family, your video will appear. This opens the door to them posting a comment and potentially sharing information.
If you don’t have old home movies to post, don’t worry. It’s easier and more affordable than ever to make your own videos. I’ve created several instructional videos to help you create exactly the kind of video you want Both are available exclusively for Genealogy Gems Premium Members (Learn more here about becoming a Premium Member):
Video Magic – a 3-part video series that walk you through crafting your story and getting it on video.
Elevenses with Lisa episode 16 How to Make a Family History Video with Adobe Spark walks you step-by-step through how to use a free app to make professionally looking videos.
Recording your own videos is faster, easier and less expensive than ever! You can have your own free YouTube channel with your free Google Account.
Get the book: The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 3rd ed., by Lisa Louise Cooke. Available exclusively at www.shopgenealogygems.com.
How to Watch Elevenses with Lisa Elevenses with Lisa is a free weekly genealogy webinar show by Lisa Louise Cooke. It premieres live and then is available to watch as a video replay both here on our website and the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Over time older...
If you happen to catch an old episode of the TV Series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you may be surprised to spot Ben Affleck dribbling down a basketball court in the not so highly acclaimed role of Basketball Player #10.
And you might need to set your popcorn down and rewind while watching Monk from 2006 on Amazon Prime Videos to confirm that indeed you did just see Jennifer Laurence from Hunger Games fame pull off a lion mascot head after a high school game in the infamous role of “Mascot Girl”.
Or how about funny man Jack Black of School of Rock fame in the walk-on part of “Taxi Driver” on the iconic 1980s comedy The Golden Girls.
Yep, at some point we are ALL bit players in somebody else’s show. And that is even more true with old home movies
Your friends, your neighbors and even perfect strangers have likely at some point captured you or someone in your family in one of their own old home movies. And the same is true for your ancestors. As long as film has been around, the chances of someone in your family tree appearing in someone else’s videos at some point in time is actually quite high.
And think about it, when film – or moving pictures – came into being right around 1895, it had the capability of capturing someone born as early as even 1800. That’s a lot of potential generations of your family!
David Haas MD knows this better than most folks. he has experienced first-hand that any one of us may find ourselves, quite by surprise, as the keeper or even the Archivist of film footage that connects to potentially hundreds if not thousands of other people and families. And there’s a very good possibility that yours is one of those families.
Your family could very well indeed be one that has been a bit player in somebody else’s film, and you didn’t even know it. But that’s OK, because thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to find the celluloid that once lay sleeping in a stranger’s attic.
The best place to start our story is how I came to know David Haas.
I’ve been encouraging you through this podcast, my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox (which includes an entire chapter devoted to YouTube) and my in-person lectures to turn to online video, and specifically YouTube in search of your family. Long time listener Debby Warner Anderson contacted me to let me know that she had followed my suggestion with dramatic results. She wrote:
“I had interviewed my Dad to get details of his memories and found the 2 YouTube links about the 1945 Macy’s Parade that my father went to and the video about W.C. Handy who my Dad remembered seeing. My Dad was so tickled to see the YouTube videos to go with his memories. It gave my family members and my son a real glimpse in to my Dad’s memories. Thank-you for the suggestions!”
David Haas MD had uploaded this video to YouTube, and it’s one of hundreds on his YouTube channel under his name David Haas MD. You need only click it and watch just a few moments to be mesmerized. The video, comprised of old home movies, is striking in its color quality, and you instantly feel yourself falling back in time, pulled there even further by the haunting music that serves as the backdrop to this silent film.
I was so taken by how this video, sitting out there for free on YouTube, fit so beautifully into Debby’s family history, helping to bring it just a bit more into focus.
I sat and watched the Macy’s Day parade video all the way through. It was so clear that it was carefully and thoughtfully restored and shared, and that it must have come from someone else’s personal home movie collection.
Clicking on the name of the person who uploaded any video on YouTube will bring you to their YouTube channel. Anyone can have a free YouTube channel by simply signing in with a free Google account and uploading a video. It’s called Creators Studio, and these days it sports an impressive collection of tools that anyone can use to create, enhance and share videos.
Many channels will have only one or maybe a handful of videos. This is not the case with David’s channel. It’s difficult to scroll down the page far enough to get to the end of the impressive video list. Where did all these home movies come from? What motivated him to invest the time to make the available on YouTube?
Literally hundreds of people appear in the 4 ½ minute Macy’s Parade (1945) film: the folks in the parade, the people lining the streets and even the people watching from the fire escapes of the surrounding buildings.
The film was created by William G Whitman Sr. A veteran of World War I, he made his way after the war as a bit of a jack of all trades, and the path eventually got the ball rolling that led to the home movies.
William G Whitman, Sr. was David’s grandfather on his mother’s side. William, his wife Catherine and their 10 year old daughter Catherine who is David’s mother can be found in the 1930 census living in Brooklyn. At that time William says he’s a manager of a store. By 1940 he has followed his passion and is proudly declaring he works in Photographic retail as a photo finisher.
But it was as far back as the year that the Great Depression hit, 1929 that William began capturing his growing family on film. In those early movies David’s mother, Catherine, was just 9 years old. David’s collection of films span from this time period all the way through the mid-1970s.
In the earliest of the home movies which you can see on David’s YouTube channel, William Whitman did what most of us do, take home movies of the people and things we love the most. In those films, David’s mom clearly relishes being in front of her father’s camera. She worshipped her father, who was a bit of a big kid himself.
“My mother always remembered things in a sunny way…it’s very much like the pictures we see on the internet, where people tend to post the most rosy possible pictures. Often times, I think it’s the same with the home movies. You really have to dig deeper to kind of get the whole story.”
This phenomenon of capturing and sharing the rosiest version of ourselves is nothing new. And as genealogists, we are in the perfect position to leverage old movies like these and dig deeper for the rest of the story. Story is a running theme through William Whitman’s films. You only need to watch a few to see what a keen eye for composition and telling stories that he had. He developed his skill while shooting weddings professionally.
William got his whole family into the act of shooting, developing and editing his films. After his daughter Catherine (image below) married David’s father, he too joined in. William passed his skills and knowledge onto his son-in-law. He soon started shooting film of his own further adding to the collection of home movies.
Catherine Anna Haas
Lawrence W. Haas
As with so many genealogical tales, great treasure troves like these films are often found with three part deep digging and one part luck. In David’s case, the path to the treasure starts with the family’s refrigerator. His father used to project the movies onto the white kitchen refrigerator. Many years later, after his parents passed away, he found his father’s movies. But it wasn’t until his Aunt Markie mentioned that there were much older 16mm movies in existence dating back to the 1920s that the rest of the collection was discovered in the basement. David set to work getting them digitized.
David not only discovered that these movies were a priceless find for his own family, he soon realized that they held a vast amount of treasure for many other families in a wide variety of locations. “It really was about the people…they needed to be shared!” He felt a moral obligation to do so, and it soon turned into an obsession.
The Gold Waiting to be Found
And that’s the gold here! If we are all bit players in everybody else’s show, and this show was happening in so many different locations, then there are a lot of bit players out there waiting to be found by their families too, right there in David’s films. While the films of course covered Brooklyn where David’s family lived, they branch out to Queens NY, Ventner NJ, and as far away as San Francisco.
The genealogical value in old home movies is immense. If as researchers we can occasionally shift our focus from ancestors’ names to locations, we could very possibly hit pay dirt and find old films online that include our family.
It was in the town of Suffern, NY that David’s father shot quite a bit of footage, but there’s plenty to be had in many different locations. Once he posted them on YouTube the response was swift.
(This compilation of footage was created to commemorate the 40th Reunion of the Suffern High School Class of 1975. It is 41 minutes in length and premiered on October 3, 2015 at the historic Lafayette Theatre in downtown Suffern, NY.)
His father filmed elements of the game that the news didn’t which viewers appreciated. And some had been at that very game.
We’re Not Getting Any Younger
David stresses that timeliness is important when it comes to sharing old home movies like these. “People aren’t getting any younger” he says, and “Others may have insights you may miss.”
One connection made through sharing the movies on YouTube, that just barely missed making a personal connection, revolved around David’s mother’s younger sister, his aunt Margaret Whitman. She lived in Brooklyn in the 1930-1940s, and there are movies of “Markie” with her friends. One film from the 1930s included her good friend Charlie Russell. (Watch below starting at about the 30 second mark.) A few years ago, David received a message from a Charlie after he saw one of the videos! Sadly, he made the connection literally a week after Markie passed away at the age of 89. “If I could have made this connection 6 months earlier it would have been so wonderful for both of them. By then all their other friends had passed away.”
Another viewer who was touched by the films was a woman who saw herself walking around the Suffern swimming pool with her mother. It was priceless to her since her parents later died in an airplane crash and she had few photos of them. That was one of many stories.
“There was a little league game that my father filmed in Suffern, and there was a young boy who struck out, and as he was walking off and one of the coaches kind of patted him on the butt, sort of saying “good try, good job”, and then the game was over and they were all kind of hugging each other because they won the game. And this young boy ended up seeing the film now, I guess 50 years later. His father had passed away not long after that little league game, and here he was seeing his father who was his coach, encouraging him after he struck out. And again, he said he couldn’t speak for hours. It was just amazing.”
Another woman even found her parents in one of the videos on Coney Island where they ran a pony ride with her grandfather!
David’s willingness to share his family’s treasure trove of home movies put him in a unique and unexpected position to touch many people’s lives in truly meaningful ways. The only difference between him and many others who have even just a few spools of film is that he took action to share them. And along the way, he learned some important lessons about what makes film so distinct in its value. It’s those unique characteristic that told him more about his own family. “What I’ve learned is that photographs are powerful, but there’s nothing like moving images”.
David’s father had captured the moments of other people’s lives while filming his own. David didn’t use to be interested in genealogy. His father, however, was obsessed with it. But now, David finds that he is grateful to be able to pull the genealogy back out and reconstruct who the people are in the movies.
It’s a word so often associated with genealogy – obsessed. David’s father became obsessed with it and now David has become obsessed with processing and making available his cache of his father’s and grandfather’s home movies. This has in turn gloriously ensnared him in the world of genealogy.
David hopes by sharing his story of how these videos have impacted and continue to impact the lives of strangers from around the world, it will inspire all of us who have a few reels of old family movies to make it a priority to get them digitized and make them available. Our families and other unknown families are counting on us.
“One thing that I’m really passionate about is that people who have home movies, if they can, they should really do their best to get them digitized” David continues, “Having gone through the experience, and it’s really been transformative, I feel very passionate about getting my wife’s movies, her family’s movies or her father when he was arrived, getting these converted and sharing these with my wife’s family. So that they can really forever see these movies and share them with their children, so that they can be passed down for generations.”
The Process: Digitize, Enhance and Share
We’ve all seen the commercial where they peer into the camera and aske “what’s in your wallet”. Our question today is “what’s in your closet”. I’ve looked through my closets and I have several home movies my grandmother shot on 8mm film. I also have a box full of VHS tapes from back when Bill and I got our first video camera right after we got married in the 1980s.
The process for digitizing and sharing your home movies can appear daunting at first glance. That’s why I asked David Haas MD to share some specifics about his project so that you can learn what you need to consider and some tips from somebody who’s already been through this in a big way.
Although David’s collection of film runs about 10 hours, has several hundred videos because he kept them short – about 4 minutes long each. This is a smart strategy because of the attention span of YouTube viewers. It’s also about the length of a song, which makes setting them to music easier.
David went the extra mile and created a website where he makes available indexes of all the videos which can be searched by location, year and person. David really thought about the potential value of these films and set up a system for making it easier for visitors to find what they are looking for. In a case like his where he has such a volume of these 3-5 minute videos, this is a huge help to other researchers. But don’t worry if having your own website isn’t in your wheelhouse. YouTube has a powerful search engine, and it’s called Google. You can make your videos very easily searchable by simply including the details that pertain to a particular video in the video description that appears below the video on YouTube.
Since your videos will be on your YouTube channel, researchers be able to simply go to your channel’s home page and type a name, place event or some other set of keywords in your channel’s search box. Google will search just your channel and retrieve only the videos that match the search terms. If you want to see this in action, go to my YouTube channel at youtube.com/genealogygems or David’s channel and try a search.
Digitizing Your Home Movies
The first step is to get the movies digitized. It can be a pretty scary thought to send your precious movies off to some stranger. David considers his videos his “most priceless possession.”
Through a bit of trial and error, David landed with a company who could do the job. He first tried a local place but ultimately went with Video Conversion Experts in Chandler AZ. They did an excellent job and cleaned them up and optimized the film. He recommends overnighting your films so that you can control when they arrive. You can receive both hard drives and DVDs of the digitized movies.
Watch this video from Video Conversion Experts. It explains the difference in quality that they provide. The difference between a company like this and the big box stores conversion is dramatic!
Sharing Your Home Movies on YouTube
At first, David thought he would take the movies to the local library. His daughter Anna convinced him to try editing them with iMovie and then uploading them to YouTube. The first film he edited was called A Drive through Suffern.
Thank goodness for David’s daughter Anna Haas! Just think if these videos had only landed in one physical location like a library versus online. Now another generation of the Haas family has entered the picture to preserve the family’s legacy and touch the lives of so many others. And it’s Anna’s inspiring music that provides the backdrop for the Macy’s Day Parade and several others.
When you love people, you just can’t justify keeping old home movies to yourself. You can’t in good conscience leave them in dusty boxes stuffed away in the back of closets in risk of deteriorating to dust. For the woman who saw her parents again in the swimming pool video, to the man who felt the affection from a father long gone, and for countless unnamed others the action that David has taken to digitize, preserve and share his home movies has been valuable beyond words.
“Don’t be afraid to do it, don’t hesitate to do it. even if you don’t have the skill set to do it, there are other people who are more than happy to kind of walk you through it and help make it happen. I would be extremely encouraging of everyone to convert their old movies and share them as widely as possible.” – David Haas MD
You’ll find inspiration and you might just find an ancestor captured on film. Because we are all bit players in everybody else’s show.
Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Hannah Fullerton, Audio Editor
My deepest thanks to David and Anna Haas for sharing their family photos, videos and music with me for this episode.
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