the all-seeingeye Protecting Family Photos: Sort, number, and identify

I inherited a suitcase full of old family photographs and scrapbook pages from my father. He inherited it from his father. And I'm not kidding about the suitcase either. It was a medium-sized leather suitcase from the 1940's or so. It was stuffed full of loose photographs. Very few had any information attached to them. I still had a chance to make some sense of the mess-my grandmother, though ailing, was still able to identify many of the folks in the pictures. So I knew that the first step was to record as much as she knew about the photographs as soon as I could. My grandmother, however, tired easily. And as much as she enjoyed reviewing the past and sharing her stories, there were many images that she would find upsetting reminders of others now passed.

The very first thing I did, however, was to number each photograph lightly in pencil somewhere on the back or margin. From that point on, storage would be in numerical order. This also makes it easier to use database software later on.

Before bringing the photographs to my grandmother, they had to be extensively culled. This meant sorting them into groups. Every collection will be different, of course, but I found that my sorting fell into two or three broad categories. First, I divided out all of the people whom I could identify myself. This group I then roughly sorted into piles based on where and when they seemed to be taken. Then I sorted groups for people I couldn't identify. These too were further broken down into obvious places, events, and times. When all of the photographs were sorted out, I selected a couple of the best representatives from each group. While it was still a substantial pile, it would be far less trying for my grandmother to look through and talk about.

The next step was to put all of the selected photographs into page protectors. These I then made plain paper photocopies of. The originals were put into a three-ring binder. The copies in another binder in the same order. The next time I went to my grandmother's, I brought all of this along. As she paged through the photographs and identified people and talked about them, I made notes on the corresponding pages of my copy.

This little bit of planning made the process go smoothly. Because grandmother didn't get tired looking through a lot of duplicates, the information I got was more reliable. This process should be repeated with every relative who'll sit still for it. For the folks with enough stamina, you can sort through the entire collection.

Next step: Caption envelopes and storage boxes.

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