How to Organize Old Family Photos: 5 Methods

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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, so storing your old family photos (the best way possible) is an important part of preserving your memories.

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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.

Going through family photos can also help you continue a loved one's digital legacy — you can use them for a virtual memorial with a service like GatheringUs. They even have specialists who can guide and support you through the planning process.

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

Tip: Ensure that your assets are taken care of according to your wishes by making a will. You can easily create one from home with an online will maker like Trust & Will.

What’s the Best Way to Organize Old Family Photos?

Organizing family photos is a daunting process for many. Home organizational experts say that the task should be the last thing to complete when reorganizing. It’s easy for people to get sidetracked while going down memory lane, which means that the job might take longer than expected.

Before jumping into this task, take some time to think about how you plan to use the photos. For example, would you be more likely to try to find a particular picture based on the time period it was taken, the location, or the person/family in the photo? 

Do you plan to share the photos with others? If so, do you plan to scan the pictures and share them digitally? Will you share them on family genealogy sites or put them in albums? Do you wish to share additional information about each photograph?

If you are the archivist of several generations of photos, perhaps your first order of business would be to separate the photographs into broad family units. Once your pictures are divided into “mom’s side of the family” or “dad’s side of the family,” you’ll be able to focus your energies into subcategorizing the photos based on time period, family unit, location, or event.

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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. 

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. 

You can read our guide on how to organize your computer's files for detailed instructions and tips.

Popular Tools for Digitally Organizing Your Old Family Photos

The first step of digitally organizing your old family photos is to digitize the images. While you can pay a third party to complete this process, someone with an intimate knowledge of your family members and events would have to go back through each image to label, tag, and organize the photos. For that reason, you might consider scanning the images yourself. 

There are quite a few free scanning apps that can be utilized from your smartphone. They may not be the highest quality, but perhaps having a perfect digital copy of a snapshot of your uncle napping during the family Christmas party isn’t necessary. 

There are many photo scanners on the market. Select a suitable scanner for your situation based on quality, speed, and ease of use. Some allow you to scan photos secured (or stuck) in albums, while others will digitize a stack of photographs in one afternoon. 

Look at the Epson FastPhoto if you have stacks of photos that you wish to scan quickly. The Kodak Scanza will scan your family’s old slides or film negatives. Doxie GO SE is a versatile, cordless scanner that you can use for your documents, receipts, and photos. Google PhotoScan is a free photo scan system that you can utilize directly from your smartphone. 

Once you have digitized your photos, you’ll probably want to utilize a photo organization system to help you find and sort photos from the thousands of images you own.

It’s crucial that you choose a digital photo organizational system with care. How many music formats have been popular throughout your life? You may have owned vinyl albums, eight-track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs, and an iPod. When it comes to digitally organizing your old family photos, it’s important not to rely on specific software programs or apps that may not be supported in the future.

Find a digital organization system that has IPTC metadata support. This means that the work you do to organize your family’s photos will not be lost when that program is no longer available. The digital images can be downloaded along with the “labels” or “tags” you assigned to your pictures. 

Unfortunately, many of these systems are complicated to use and were designed for professional photographers with a lot of technological expertise. For this reason, you might consider using the free application that came with your computer: Photos for Mac or Microsoft Photos.

Both allow you to tag photos with important (searchable) information. Both will enable you to download the pictures in a format that includes that information, and they are both easy to use. 

What Else Can You Do With Old Family Photos?

You may feel that it is a waste of time to scan, organize, tag, and label thousands of family photographs if nothing is ever done with them. After all, how often do you flip through your old photo albums, boxes of photos, or digital photo files?

Give life to your family photos by creatively sharing them. Here are some ideas.

Create a family calendar using old photographs

Many people create a personalized family calendar each year. Instead of only using current photos that you stole off Facebook and Instagram, why not scatter older images throughout your project? Your children might enjoy seeing pictures of their grandparents from their younger days. 

Share the photos on a digital photo frame

Some digital photo frames allow you to share pictures through email, partner apps, or even social media. Consider purchasing a digital photo frame for your parents or grandparents with these capabilities and periodically sharing old family photographs that you scanned.

Share photos on social media

Are you friends with your extended family members on social media? Celebrate the lives of your deceased family members by sharing photos of them on significant days. For example, share your favorite picture of Grandma on what would have been her 100th birthday, or share a picture of your Grandpa in his dress uniform on Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Your family members will appreciate seeing the photographs, and they can save the pictures for their own digital libraries.

Donate photos to historical societies or museums

You might not have an emotional connection to all of your photographs, but this doesn’t mean that they should be destroyed. Consider donating some of your pictures to school alumni organizations, local historical societies, or museums if you feel that there is a special significance to the photographs.

Give the photos away to other families

Don’t assume that other families have been as careful as yours with their family photos. All it takes is one broken pipe, a house fire, or an uninterested party to destroy decades of memories. 

If you have family photographs that could be important to other people in the community or extended family, share your pictures with them.

Create a wall display

Do you want to share your love of family history with your family? Make it an important part of your life by displaying old family photographs in your home. Consider creating a display of those old black-and-white portraits. Add the names and their familial relationship so that your children and grandchildren can understand the significance of the photos.

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.

Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling the details of their unfinished business such as organizing old photos can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.


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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