This is a guest post by Denise May Levenick, The Family Curator
Photographs are the treasures of any family history collection. Documents can verify kinship and share the details of everyday life, but photos allow us to see firsthand the same eyes or broad smile we inherited from our forebears. Organizing all those photos may seem overwhelming, but with a simple plan you can organize and preserve your photos for the next generation.
1. Photos, Photos, Everywhere
If you inherited an estate be prepared to find photos everywhere: in boxes, closets, and drawers, in purses, wallets, books and Bibles. The first step in any organizing plan is to know the scope of the project. Ask yourself:
- How many boxes or individual photos do you have?
- Where are they now located?
- Do you have a current project in mind? (a memorial slideshow or birthday book?)
- How much time do you have to get organized?
If time is limited and you need photos for an upcoming reunion or other project, aim to locate and organize those photos first. If your goal is more general, to gain control of your photo chaos, broaden your search and round up as many photos as possible.
Gather your photos together in one place. I like to work at my dining table covered with a clean white sheet or large piece of white butcher paper. Bring out all the shoeboxes, plastic bins, paper envelopes and plastic zip bags filled with photos that you can find. If you have a lot of photos it may help to focus on prints and save film and slides for another day.
2. Use the White Glove Treatment
Be kind to your photos by washing your hands often or wearing white cotton gloves to protect prints from fingerprints. Hold photos by the edges and avoid touching the surface of the image.
Avoid light and heat near your photos, and keep the coffee and snacks away from your work area.
3. Sorting Strategies
There are as many ways to sort and organize photos as there are ways to organize your genealogy research notes. Use whatever method works for your project and the overall range of your collection. Some ideas include organizing by:
- individual, couple, or family group
- kind of photo (black & white snapshot, cabinet card, color print, etc.)
Work methodically to sort your photos, taking time to really look at the images and make connections with people and family you can identify. I like to sort my photos using 3×5 cards as labels; read more about my method, Organizing Old Family Photos With the Parking Lot System at The Family Curator.
Write identifying information on the reverse side using a soft lead pencil and a light touch, or on the outside of the envelope or sleeve. Never use ball-point or permanent ink.
4. Preserve the Past
It’s gratifying to throw away all those old cardboard shoeboxes and plastic bags when you move your precious family photos into fresh acid-free storage containers. Museum-quality archival boxes and sleeves will protect your photo memories from dust and light.
Store containers in a location with moderate temperature and humidity; avoid extreme temperatures in basements, attics, and garages. Check periodically for pests or plumbing leaks. An interior closet inside your home is ideal.
Of course, organizing and preserving your heirloom family photos is only the beginning – with your photos readily available, you’ll want to digitize and share your photo memories with family and friends. Whether you want to make a birthday tribute album, write an illustrated family history, or create a colorful family tree for a grandchild, an organized photo archive will make it easier and more enjoyable to achieve your goal.
Denise May Levenick is a national speaker and author with a passion for preserving family keepsakes of all kinds. Denise inherited her first family archive from her grandmother in 2000 and is now the caretaker and curator of several family collections. She is the author of How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally, with 25 Easy Keepsake Projects (FamilyTree Books, 2015) and How to Archive Family Keepsakes. Follow Denise and learn more about preserving and sharing family heirlooms at her blog, The Family Curator.