Preserving Your Family Photo Collection
Are you the keeper of your family photo collection? The one who inherited a giant, jumbled box of pictures, negatives and slides?
Deciding what to do with all those family treasures can be a daunting prospect, indeed. But here are a few tips and resources to help!
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Don’t try to do it all at once:
Give yourself some grace; sorting family photos is a big job. So don’t try to do it all in one day. Be realistic about your expectations and your time.
Enlist help – especially from any family members who might have an interest. Going through heirloom photos can be a great excuse to get together, and it’s a great way to share duplicates. Other family members can also be a terrific help with identifying unmarked photos.
Begin with a rough sort of what you have – perhaps by branch of the family or by decade. Clean plastic tubs can help you corral various categories temporarily.
One question you’ll need to answer for yourself early on: gloves or no gloves? Many archivists recommend wearing clean cotton gloves and handling old photos and documents only by the edges. Others caution that wearing gloves can be more damaging to fragile old paper than bare fingers because you won’t be as nimble. It’s your call – but at the very least, wash your hands well ahead of time!
Protect what needs protecting:
Set aside any especially fragile or deteriorating photos for priority care as you come across them. At a minimum, lay them flat and use acid-free paper or archival sleeves to protect fragile items. One of the best ways to ensure the long-term survival of very fragile images is to scan them. Sharing scans with family members can also help ensure that important images will be preserved even if something should happen to the original.
A battered old cardboard box may have held your family’s collection for decades. But consider investing in archival boxes, sleeves and binders to protect the remainder of your family photo collection, too, not just the most precious items. Museum supplier Gaylord sells archival-quality preservation kits and tips on how to sort, protect and store photographs here:
Label, Label, Label
Do what you can to identify any unmarked photos by date, place, and person. Most archivists recommend using a soft Number Two pencil, and marking on a sleeve or envelope, rather than on the photo itself.
Share your family photo collection for posterity:
If an image might have local historical significance (like the one below), offer to share scans and any unwanted photos with local historical societies or museums. Include as much information as you can about the date, place, event, and photographer; where they were found; and how they came into your possession. That ‘provenance’ can add valuable clues that may help the organization learn even more about the photo.
Consider which family photos you might like to see every day. I love the idea of creating a “gallery wall” of family photographs. Think you don’t have any room? Consider lining a hall or stairway wall with your favorite pictures. You’ll want to use acid-free mats and backing, of course, with archival glass to prevent old photos from fading. Ask your local frame shop for help with appropriate materials if necessary. Or consider framing an enlargement made from a high-quality scan, so that a delicate original isn’t degraded by light.
Two quick cautions: Don’t use a bathroom or laundry wall to display precious pictures; the moisture won’t be kind to them. And if the frames themselves are very old, leave them in their original, antique glory. Resist that temptation to paint them shiny black or (heaven forbid) spray-paint them gold. For some fun visuals of what a gallery wall might look like, check out this post: https://www.makingmanzanita.
More resources for your family photo collection:
Like more help and tips on how to care for family photographs? Check out the book “Creating Family Archives” by Margot Note ($24.99).
Like helpful tips for writing your memoir
or a family history?