Genealogy Tips: Managing Your Photo Collection

by Steven Dugan

One of the biggest challenges for family historians is what to do with the hundreds of photographs you might have in your personal collection. Do you save every photo? Are you storing them properly? How should you document the people in each image? The questions can be overwhelming. However you decide to preserve your photographs, here are some things to keep in mind.

There are dozens of ways to sort your photos, and all of them are right! Our suggestion is that you sort your photos in the way that seems most logical to you. You may choose to sort them by year, decade, family unit, individual person, or even by type of photo (black and white, color, type of paper, etc.). The main thing is to be consistent. If you choose to sort by decade, sort all photos by decade. If you find you don’t have many dates listed on photos, choose another way to sort. It’s completely up to you! It might also be helpful to create a spreadsheet to track the description, people identified, and physical location of each image.

As you begin to identify your family photos, it’s perfectly acceptable to write names, dates, and short descriptions on the back of the photo. One huge caveat is what you use to write on the photos. A soft lead pencil is the preferred instrument to use—a #1 pencil is the best—but don’t use anything harder than a #2 pencil.  Ballpoint pens are highly verboten. Pens can bleed through photos and leave indentations on the front of the photo. Also, do your best to identify family members you know and then ask other family members to help you fill in the blanks.

Joe Walsh date unknown

Reverse of Joe Walsh Date unkn.
Finding personalized notes on the back of photographs is always a special surprise. Although it’s common to find these notes written in pen (like above), it can damage your photos! Notice how Steve added his own notes about the subject and date- in pencil.

If you choose to scan your photos, you might decide to scan the backs of images that have writing on them, as well. Depending on the size and condition of your photos, you will need to find the best way to scan them. This could be done with a flatbed or hand-held scanner, or, you can even take a photo of your old photo. The latter technique is especially helpful if the photo or painting is larger than a scanner bed, if it is too fragile to handle, or if it is in an old frame.

Never laminate a photograph. The laminate material does not provide any UV protection for your images. Plus, the laminating process exposes the photo to heat, which could accelerate deterioration and may be a breeding ground for mold if any moisture is present. Once an item is laminated, it’s irreversible. You can always rescan an older photo or retake digital photos instead of laminating them.

Once you’ve sorted, identified, and maybe even scanned your most valuable images, you’ll want to store them safely, and in a safe place. Those who engage in photo preservation, from genealogists, to photographers, to museum archivists, all agree that protecting photographs safely in acid-free, archival sleeves and boxes is best. Archival materials can help slow down additional fading or deterioration due to sunlight and air. There are many reputable companies that sell these materials. Two that the Homestead uses are Gaylord Archival and University Products.

Archival boxes are a great way to safely store your photographs.
Photo sleeves
Archival protective sleeves are another great option to safely store your photographs.

Michelle Villarreal, the Homestead’s Collections Coordinator, recommends that boxed photos be stored on an elevated shelf (in a closet, for instance); at a constant, cool temperature (as much as possible); and away from light (even artificial light). Storing photos in a garage or basement is dangerous because of extreme, fluctuating temperatures; humidity; and the potential for flooding.

When it comes to digital photographs, there are a few ways to store them. One way is on the hard drive of your computer, but you’ll want to make sure you have a backup, such as a flash drive or external hard drive. You can also store your material “in the cloud.” Companies like Drop Box, Microsoft, Google, and Apple offer storage on remote servers that can be accessed online. These companies, after you establish an account, offer free storage up to a certain point, but if you need any more storage capacity, there are associated fees.

Genealogy Workshop 2
Join us for It’s All Relative on Saturdays, September 9 & 23, 2017.

If you’re interested in family history, including how to manage your photo collection, we encourage you to sign up for It’s All Relative, a two-part genealogy workshop at the Homestead Museum scheduled for September 9 and 23, from 10 a.m. to noon each day. The first session will cover the basics of genealogy research, such as collecting and organizing facts, and discovering the places you can find information both online and in person. During the second session, participants will get help with documenting their family history data, identifying and dating old photos, confirming information found online, and overcoming road blocks (those instances where the trail of an ancestor becomes difficult to follow) that everyone will eventually encounter. Admission is free, but reservations are required. The workshop is limited to 20 participants, so reserve your spot by calling the museum at (626) 968-8492 or by visiting the sign-up page.

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