Most family historians are challenged by “Unknown Ancestors,” those unidentified yet familiar faces peering out of old cabinet cards and snapshots. They look like they belong in the family, but who are they?
When you discover a name, date, or location for the photo, do you know the safest and best strategy for recording the what you know about the physical photo or negative?
Adding information to your family photos doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. You need only a few inexpensive supplies, a box of old photos, and a clean table or work surface.
It’s always a good idea to add metadata to the digital image of scanned photos, but start with the simple solution of adding a label to your physical photos. For tips on labeling digital photos, refer to “How to Add Photo Metadata Without Special Software.”
How to Label Physical Photos
What You Need
Before working with photographs its a good idea to thoroughly wash and dry your hands to remove any body oils that might transfer to the prints. Archivists are split over whether or not to wear white cotton gloves when handling photos. They provide good protection against fingerprints, but they can be clumsy and awkward.
Cover a table with a large sheet of clean white paper. Old photos and storage materials can be dirty and crumbling.
What Information Should You Record?
Try to label your photos with at least a minimum of vital information:
- subject’s name with maiden name for women, if known
- subject’s age
- date of photo
Add details about the event, photographer, or anything else you might know. It’s fine to add your own name, too. Although you don’t need to add a complete biography and photo provenance to the photo, it can be a nice surprise for your descendants.
What’s the Best Way to Label Family Photos?
How, where, and what you write depends on the image itself. Cased images such as tintypes won’t have a writing surface; you’ll have to add your notation on a paper enclosure or sleeve. For most photographs, a short note on the reverse side of the photos is preferred using the least permanent writing material.
- Pencil on reverse
Use a soft lead #2 pencil to write using very light pressure on the reverse side of the photograph. If you have a set of similar photos, write in a consistent spot such as the top or the bottom on the reverse side of the print.
- Archival pen on reverse or in margin
Some modern photographic papers are glossy or slick making it impossible to use pencil. Use an acid-free scrapbooking pen with black ink with light pressure to write on the reverse side of the print. For Polaroid Instant Prints, write in the margin. Do not use ball-point pen as inks can change color over time or run and and leave blotches.
- Archival pen on plastic sleeve
If you store prints in archival polyester or polypropylene sleeves, label the photo by writing on the plastic sleeve instead of the print. Remove the print from the sleeve before writing on the plastic to avoid leaving impressions on the print. Another option is to hand write or print information on an acid-free label attached to the sleeve.
- Pen, pencil, or printed label on paper sleeve
If you store prints in paper sleeves, folders, or envelopes, you can add lengthy identifying information directly to the enclosure. It’s still a good idea to add a minimum name and date label to the back of the print if possible, in case the photo and labeled envelope become separated.
Celebrate Preservation Week 2016 with the American Library Association by meeting the challenge to safely archive and preserve your family photos. ALA.org/preservationweek.
About Denise May Levenick
Denise May Levenick is a genealogy lecturer and author of “How to Archive Family Keepsakes” and “How to Archive Family Photos” (Family Tree Books). She writes on her blog “TheFamilyCurator.com” about about preserving family photos, documents, and memorabilia, and curates her own family archive in Pasadena, California.