Monday, August 31, 2015

Dos and Don'ts for Preserving Family Photos

Need another random fact about Katie?  I am a genealogy nerd.  Since my early high school years, I have been collecting and scanning and documenting history in the form of photographs.  This early interest (not really a normal hobby for a teen) was a blessing in disguise because I had the chance to sit and talk about those photos and memories with my grandparents before they all passed away.  I treasure the opportunity I had to hear those stories and record them for another generation.

This spring and summer as my family has been cleaning out the house that my maternal grandparents lived in, they have found thousands of photographs.  Not a surprise considering the size of their family (7 kids, 18 grandkids, 29 great grandkids, and 6 great-greats...), but what was a sad revelation was that so many of the pictures were unlabeled, unsorted, damaged, and had never been seen by others in the family. We had planned a special memorial service/family reunion in the middle of the summer, so I set a goal for myself to get all of those pictures scanned, sorted, and ready to share with the people who would be gathered together.

Let me tell you, it was no easy task.  A lot of hours later, I had scanned a vast majority of the pictures, digitally and physically labeling them as I went, and sorted the photos into envelopes to be given to each branch of the family, including distant relatives that I knew would value pictures of their great-great grandparents too.  I then took all of the scanned images and info and burned CDS for all the kids, grandkids, great grands, etc. that wanted them- so now everyone has access to all of the family photos that we have discovered.

We found some real treasures, and now there are a lot of pictures that I want to have printed, both to hang in my home and to add to the family scrapbooks.  Unfortunately as I have worked with all of these photos, I have also found lots of damage and pictures we can't use.  For example-

This is a pic of my poor Granny as a toddler- we can't find the rest of the photo with her head...

Or there's this one of my Papa- It was originally a black and white military photo, but along the way some generous kiddo decided to add a little crayon, including a bit too much lipstick:

A sad picture that is discolored, cracked and broken:

And this is just one of many photos that we can't identify the people in.  I have a stack of photos that have been perused by all of my mom's siblings and some extended family, and we still can't name who's who.  (Also, the sweet little girls in this pic are holding up dead squirrels...what?)

So what can we do to preserve these family treasures?  I've been collecting, labeling, sorting, sharing, and storing old family photos for about 15 years now, and I've learned a few things along the way. Here are are my top dos and don'ts for preserving your family photos:

*Don't: Write ON the front of the photo for goodness' sake.  Don't write using a normal ink pen that can eventually bleed through and never use a standard permanent marker.
*Do: Write lightly on the back of the photo using a pencil or acid free archival pen.  If the photo is fragile, write the information on a small piece of paper or envelope and store with the photo.  Include any information you know- names of people in the photo, point of reference in the family tree, and even an estimated year if you can.  (If unsure, I include approx. or the ~ symbol.  I figure my best guess is probably better than what someone will be able to do in 25 years.)

*Don't: Keep photos in cardboard boxes or store them in haphazard stacks that lead them to be bent or folded. Don't store photos in boiling hot attics or damp, cool basements or other non-climate controlled environments.
*Do: Store photos in a flat, acid free container of some kind.  There are lots of inexpensive options. Use folders or other dividers to organize and separate photos. A good rule of thumb is to keep the photos where you "live."  In other words, store them on the main floor of your house where temperature and humidity are the most consistent.

*Don't: Just tuck the photos away in a "safe" place or divvy them up among family members...yet. Safe storage places are susceptible to fire, basement floods, misplaced boxes... Think about it- they're the one thing you can't replace.
*Do: Scan everything first.  Seriously.  Take them to a professional photo place and have them scanned, or buy your own scanner and learn how to use it.  Enlist help if you need it, but then you can have infinite digital copies of those precious photos.  You can personally back up the photos on an external hard drive, store a copy in a safe deposit box, and burn a CD for every sibling, aunt, and second cousin that wants one.  Even if the originals are lost or damaged (sob) you will still have the photos. (Also, remember to save the photos using a files name that identifies the people in the picture. Hundreds of IMG504s won't do your grandkids any good.)

*Don't: Please please please don't store photos in magnetic photo albums.  If you have any pictures in those monstrosities books, here is an article with tips for safely removing them. (I am cringing inside thinking about what those albums do to photos...)
*Do: If you want to store photos in an album, binder, or scrapbook, that is great!  Just make sure the book and all materials are acid free.  It is amazing how fast items will discolor and be damaged from the wrong materials.  I have lots of pages from my early days of scrapbooking that have completely fallen apart and discolored.  (Fortunately, I was using copies of the photos, not the real deal!)  I also highly recommend using photo corners like these, especially for old photographs, because none of the adhesive actually touches the photos.  Scrapbooks should be stored vertically to prevent embellishments on pages from making impressions in photographs (crazy, but even seemingly flat stickers can do this over time).

*Don't: Assume who is in pictures, or guess at spellings, or get rid of pictures that you can't identify. Also, don't just stop at names and dates; see if you can find out the story and context behind the photograph.
*Do: Take your photos to a grandparent or other older family members and spend time asking them to help identify people and tell stories about the pictures.  Better yet, gather many family members at once to go through the photographs, collect information, and check facts.  Jot down notes to record alongside the photos.  Check names against genealogy records (for example, finally figuring out that my great great aunt Mary Geneva went by the nickname Neva made some pieces fit together.)

My goal is always about preserving the memories and stories of my family.  Photographs are tied to that mission, and caring for them properly will help many more generations know and understand their past.

***And- All the pictures in this post are in terrible shape! If you would like to see some my favorite family photos and the stories they tell, you can check out these posts:
Throw (Way) Back, Edition 1 (My mom's side- and this post also tells a bit of the story of how and why I got started in genealogy)
Throw (Way) Back, Edition 2 (My dad's side)
All those pictures with their wonderful fashions, and still haven't found a picture with my granny wearing any of the dresses that I model in this post.  Maybe, maybe, if I keep digging I will! :)  You also might like reading my sister's post about printing your family photos from today so later generations will have them for tomorrow.

I'd love to hear about your adventures with family photos- finding them, preserving them, telling their stories...what have you done with your heirloom photographs?


  1. "They're the one thing you can't replace." You are incredibly wise, some might say beyond your years. Ps, you rock preserving our family history.

  2. Katie this is such a great post! It makes me want to back-up/scan all the pictures I've been given to take care of!

  3. LOL, ok that picture of the girls holding the squirrels killed me. what are they doing? dinner? and I just wanted to say that picture of Alta, looks like my grandma alma, did she have a sister alta? my grandma was a twin.

    1. I know! What was with the squirrels? :) That's crazy that she looks so much like your grandma. She was my great-great aunt, and only had one sister named Edna :)