10 Steps to Organize Old Family Photos

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Photos are being taken all the time. By the time a child is one year old, they may have already been the subject of thousands of photographs. The ease of taking photos with your phone means that people have many more photos than they used to. 

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But, photos of your ancestors who were born in the mid-1800s might be few and far between. If you are lucky, you may have two or three images of your family members who lived during this era. Since old photographs are rare (and precious), it’s worth learning how to preserve them. Even if you aren’t that interested in your family’s history, others who come after you might be.

Here is what you need to do to make sure that your family photos will be preserved for future generations. 

How to Preserve Your Old Family Photos

At some point in your family’s history, someone may have decided to preserve your family photos and documents. And it’s possible they didn’t do a great job. You may see the result of their work when you run across precious photos stuck to magnetic albums from the 70s. Or you find photographs that were attached to albums using adhesives that have not aged well.

Make sure you know what you are doing when you take charge of preserving your family’s history. Not knowing how to handle photographs may cause the photos to be destroyed. Here are some steps that you can follow to preserve these important things. 

1. Handle the photos carefully

In your attempt to organize the photos to preserve them, make sure you handle them gently. After all, they may be one-of-a-kind items that can’t be replaced.

  • Handle the photos with clean hands.
  • Keep food and drink away from the photographs.
  • Limit the touching of brittle or delicate photographs.

2. Identify the people in the photos

A photograph depicting strangers isn’t as meaningful as one showing your great-great-grandmother. It might seem easier to throw away these photos rather than try to identify the people in them. But you never know what important part of your family’s history you might be throwing away.

As part of the preservation process, try to identify every person in each photograph. Ask your older family members for help. You might be surprised by how much they know.

As you sit with your family members, take some notes as they talk about the photos. It’s unlikely they’ll just name everyone in the photo and move on. A little reminiscing about the events and people is likely to occur. These pieces of information may help you understand the story behind the photo better. Make a note of the location of the photograph as well as the year it was taken. 

Once you have identified the people in the photos, figure out a labeling process that won’t damage the photos. Writing the information on the back of the photograph in pencil is the recommended choice. 

Some archivists say to avoid making any markings on the back of the photo. Instead, consider making a spreadsheet to track the photos. You can include a description of the photograph as well as any identifying information about that image. Print out a copy of your spreadsheet and store it with the photos. 

3. Place the pictures in archival storage containers

Once you have identified the people (and places) in the photo, determine how you would like the photographs to be stored. 

Here are some storage options.

  • Place the photos in an acid-free storage box with a lid. If you decide to store the pictures in a box, keep like-sized photos together. 
  • Place the photos in polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene sleeves. Store them in an acid-free box.
  • Place the photos in an acid-free album, using corner mounts to keep the photograph in place. 

4. Store the boxes or albums in a cool, dark, and dry place

Avoid keeping your photos in hot attics or damp basements. Keep the photos away from radiators or vents. And make sure your photos are protected from leaky roofs or pipes. 

It’s important to keep your photographs away from critters, too. Mice love to chew through paper. Silverfish, bookworms, and other insects also love munching on old documents. Check on your photos once or twice a year. That way you can catch any damage that is happening before it gets too bad. 

5. Make a digital copy of the photos

One way to ensure that your images are preserved is to make digital copies of the photographs. A digital copy can never quite replace an original picture. But if something happens to the original at least you have a copy. It’s better than nothing.

There are scanners that are designed for this purpose. And people that can help you do it. But do your research before buying anything or hiring someone. You want the best versions of your photos possible.    If you are on a tight budget, several free apps do a pretty decent job of “scanning” photos. 

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

How to Organize and Store Digital Copies of Your Family Photos 

Before you start organizing your digital photos, think about what you want to achieve. 

Do you want to create a digital storage system that will make it easier for you to find and manage your photos? Do you want a system that you can use for the rest of your life? Or do you want to organize your photos so that your descendants can easily look at them?

If you want to create a photo organizational system that your grandchildren and great-grandchildren can use, avoid using organizational software. That software could become obsolete, as will your computer. 

Instead, follow these tips to create a digital library of your family’s photos. 

1. Load all the images to one device 

Load all the scanned images you have. Create one folder for all these images and make sure you save everything there. That way you don’t have to consolidate things later on. 

2. Delete duplicate photos

Depending upon how many files you have, you may want to delete duplicate photos or those with a poor quality image. Choose pictures that are of the highest quality to preserve.

3. Create a set of folders to organize the photos

There’s no right or wrong way to organize family photos. Here are some options.

Organize by family unit. If you have photos from all your relatives you can organize the photos around each family unit. Your grandmother’s family photos would get a file. And your family would get a separate file.

Organize by the year. It might make more sense to have a chronological view of your family’s history. If that is the case, create a system of files organized by the year or decade.

Organize by the event. As you organize more recent photos, you may need to have a more precise organizational system. Consider creating files for big events, such as “Grandma Swift’s Birthday.”

Organize by the person. Sometimes you might need to find photos of specific people in your family quickly. Create a file with each person’s name. If multiple people are in the same picture, you could consider saving that photo in multiple files. 

Organizing your photos by person would also make it easier to find images of a specific relative. You never know when you might need those photos. When a person dies, many families create a memorial collage or memory board. These projects require photos of the deceased to be complete. Having an organizational system makes it easier to identify the relevant photos quickly.

Your organizational system should be based on the number of photos you have. You should also consider how close you are to the family members in the photos.  If you have dozens of pictures of your grandmother with her siblings, but you had no relationship with the siblings, you don’t need to label or organize the photos under the siblings’ names.

This does not mean that you should not label those people in the photograph. But you don’t need to create a separate file for them. 

4. Create a naming system

Even though it is time-consuming, you should label the images in a way that makes them easy to search. If you are going to file them in separate locations, having a consistent naming system will make them easier to find.

Include pertinent information in the name for each photo. That way, the digital image will forever be connected with the relevant information.

When naming a photo, do not use spaces. Either run the text together without spaces or place an underscore or dash where spaces would be. Save the images as .jpg.

Think about the generations that come after you when you name the photos. Avoid using relationship names, such as “mom” or “great-grandpa.” Instead, consider using first and last names and perhaps the year the photo was taken.

So, label a photo“BerthaSmithWilson_1908.” rather than “GrandmaWilson.”  That naming convention will make it much easier for those outside of your family to sort the photos.  

5. Save the digital images in multiple formats and locations

This, perhaps, is the most important tip. Make sure that your digital images are saved in more than one place.

At home, you may save your photos on an external memory drive. You may want to place this item in a safe place within your family home.

It’s also worth creating a backup of the photos for someone else in your family. Ask them to store this clearly-labeled device at their home.

Finally, consider purchasing storage in the cloud. Some companies that sell photo gifts may seem like the obvious place to store your photos. But those companies might delete your photos if your account is inactive. And companies go out of business all the time. To avoid losing your photos, buy cloud storage from a reputable company. 

Make sure you have a printed version of each photo. That way, you have something physical if your digital storage is compromised. 

Preserving Photos for Your Family

One of the greatest gifts you can give your progeny is an organized family tree, complete with images. Even if your children do not seem to be interested in family stories now, they may change their minds later on.


Sources

  1. “Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs.” Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/preservation/care/photo.html.
  2. “Preservation Tips for Photographs, Documents, and Digital Files.” Minitex News. news.minitex.umn.edu/news/library-news/preservation-tips-photographs-documents-and-digital-files.
  3. Preservation Tips. Preservation Brochure. www.minitex.umn.edu/Contact/Materials/PreservationBrochure.pdf.
  4. “Storing Family Papers and Photographs.” National Archives. www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives/storing.
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