Posted by Denise May Levenick on July 17, 2015 in Research

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.

Family Curator

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
  • place
  • event
  • date
  • 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.

The Family Curator

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.

Denise May Levenick

Denise May Levenick writes about preserving family photos, documents, and memorabilia at the award-winning blog, The Family Curator (http://thefamilycurator.com/). She is author of "How to Archive Family Keepsakes" and "How to Archive Family Photos" (Family Tree Books), and a contributor to the Ancestry Blog, FamilyTree Magazine, and other genealogy publications. Find more practical ideas for organizing, digitizing, and sharing your photos in "How to Archive Family Photos" (http://thefamilycurator.com/books/).

11 Comments

  1. About the new interface; it sucks for reasons I set forth a moment ago.

    Further, why do I have to bother with the Blog routines in order to tell you via email that I really don’t like the new interface !??????????????

  2. Donna Brint

    Hi Denise…I have a very old paper record of my gggrandparents marriage…It is in desperate condition and I would love to have it restored; where do I find someone who can do that kind of work?

  3. Tracey Ramsey

    I have a photo question. I have about 10 or 12 old tin pictures with both the black and brown backing on them. I’m told that the color of the back helps to date the pictures. I know who is in most of them. I have them scanned, backed up in multiple places, put on Ancestry.com and such. My question is how to take care of the original tin pictures. The picture is slowly chipping away from the tin. I would love to display them somehow but I’ve been afraid to put them out in the light. I’ve kept them in a box in the closet for years so that they are protected. What can I do with them so future generations can see the actual tin picture?

  4. Thomas Putman

    When my mother died, I got her photos. I scanned every one of them, restored a good many of them. I’m glad I did, these photos were lent out and I never got most of them back, and no one seems to know where those photos are. The photos I did get back, I placed in an acid free photo album and labeled to the best of my ability the who, what when and where for each photo.

  5. I think i need 1 month to organize them. because there are too many photos even my grandmothers too. ı have pictures of someone who is not living and i never know! But i love to keep them!

  6. Hello Denise. Sorry to have to report that in trying the “New” Ancestry, some of my relatives were duplicated. When I attempted a “merge duplicates” they certainly merged, but everything was merged … duplicating all the spouses, children, etc. Now I’m having to go through each person to ensure the duplicates are being addressed and I’m having to delete the duplicates one by one. Deciding which is the right one is a pain to say the least. Perhaps I’m doing something wrong, but I think this version needs some tweaks. Thanks for listening and if you have any solutions for my particular problems, I would love to hear them.

  7. Hi Denise! I am so busy helping people time-date their old photos by the clothes, I am the last person to organize my own family photos. So, pls tell me where to buy safe containers to store my stuff until I can properly organize them . I need a stop-gap plan. Thanks, Betty Shubert ..PS. Have you seen my own monthly blog on Ancestry.com?

  8. Karen Carney

    Donna Brint – If you live in New England or the Northeast, contact the Northeast Document Conservation Center at nedcc.org. A good resource is also a local, county or state historical society or large library with an archival collection for recommendations of professional paper conservationists in your area. Good luck with your document.

  9. Kristen

    My dad has a bunch of pictures from his uncle and/or grandmother, some of which are clearly molding — the smell, appearance, and slight difficulty breathing while the suitcase was open speak to it. Do you have any advice on how to find someone who can restore these photos?

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