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The U.S. School Yearbook Posted by on Feb 7, 2019 in Culture, News

Schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States create academic yearbooks. They document the school year, highlighting the accomplishments and campus life of all students and not exclusively graduating seniors. Generally, these annual collections of photos and short essays are considered journalistic endeavors. Indeed, most high school and college yearbooks are assembled by students in journalism classes. There is usually a faculty advisor or supervisor, but the responsibility for collecting and designing the yearbooks often falls to the students who comprise the yearbook staff.

Photo courtesy of Morguefile, CCO

Yearbooks are not exclusive to schools in the U.S., but they seem to have far more importance here than in most other countries. And, while bound and published yearbooks are being supplanted by web-based variations, many schools have decided to keep the traditions alive. Some schools have been compiling yearbooks for over 200 years. Yale University published its first yearbook in 1806! In fact, the first known yearbooks dating back to the 1600s, although there were no photographs. They were scrapbooks which collected notes, sketches, flowers, and even hair cuttings of dear friends.

With the advent of computers, digital yearbooks now include amazing graphics and videos, but the essential element of any yearbook is the photographs which document student life and memories. Most yearbooks have a general theme, selected by the editorial staff, which can be found throughout the book. Thus, the photos, videos, essays, and graphics will try (or struggle) to adhere to the editorial motif.

The typical U.S. school yearbook has various traditional sections. The largest is almost always the school photo. Elementary, middle, and high schools hold a Picture Day every year when students and school staff will have their portraits taken by professional photographers. Parents can purchase copies printed in various sizes. These photos also may serve as official school IDs. Seniors typically have their portraits taken separately, in a portrait studio or posed in a location which is significant to the soon-to-be graduate.

Student organizations will also be highlighted in the yearbook. You’ll find arts organizations, such as chorus, band, and theatre alongside clubs dedicated to pursuits like debating, robotics, or writing code.

Features on student life are essential to every yearbook. These document parties, dances, trips, and other social events which take place on and off campus. As with social media posts which may come back to haunt people years later, student life features in old yearbooks have been much in the news recently, and not in a good way. Shameful, and blatantly racist pictures of politicians in blackface have impacted the state government of Virginia. Quotes which are difficult to explain impacted Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Now that video is used to record everything, we can probably expect journalists to scrutinize yearbooks for controversial material for years to come.

Let’s not forget sports, always one of the most popular aspects of any school life. Large sections of any yearbook will cover team sports and accomplishments. In the U.S. you’ll certainly find coverage of any combination of football, soccer, baseball, gymnastics, swimming, basketball, wrestling, hockey, golf, lacrosse, volleyball, and many more. And don’t forget the cheerleader squads!

Some yearbooks contain several blank pages. This is intended to accommodate signatures and personal remarks to remember classmates and special memories. Words of encouragement, affection, and private jokes and messages are reserved for these pages, and often are the most treasured feature of the yearbook.

Finally, all yearbooks include special pages for seniors who are remembered by one another. Polls are conducted to select Senior Celebrities, those who stand out for one reason or another. You might see someone selected for Best Smile, Loudest Laugh, Best Couple, Most Likely to Succeed, or Class Clown. I had the dubious honor of being named both of the latter two in my senior year of high school.

I’d love to hear any of your experiences with school yearbooks. They can be a source of indelible memories.

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