Organizing Your Family Photos—Part 1

One of the genealogy-related projects I’ve been putting off for, oh, 10 years or so relates to my family photo collection.  I have nearly all of the old photos in my family, and they’ve been sitting in a box, unsorted, for a decade.  Late last fall I finally decided to tackle them.  It’s turned out to be a huge project, but I’ve finally come to a stopping point (at least with the oldest photos in my collection…the modern ones are a whole other animal).  Here’s how I did it:

  • I sorted the photos by branch of the family they came from.  There’s a little bit of overlap, but not much.  Then I separated the photos that show living people from those that don’t, because I want to make sure I’m not putting photos or information on living people on the internet (which is, of course, a bad idea).  About halfway through the first branch of photos, I figured out that I should have also put them in roughly chronological order.
  • I decided to assign each photo a four-digit number, starting with 1000.  This way, I could easily save the photos without having to worry about how to name them after people with unknown names, birth names versus married names, names with multiple spellings, group photos, etc.
  • I created a spreadsheet in Excel to serve as an index.  It has the following columns:
    • Photo number
    • Subject (including full names of all of the known people in the photo)
    • Date (the exact date if I knew it; a good guess if I didn’t)
    • Source (who gave me the the photo)
    • Back (any notes, marks, stamps, or other information on the back; when I recognized the handwriting as belonging to a particular person, I note that as well, since some sources are more credible than others in terms of identifying people and places in photos)
    • Notes (observations, clues, or other information related to the photo)
  • I started scanning.  This part was no fun at all; it’s just as slow and tedious as you think it will be.  I finally started breaking it down into tiny increments, with a goal of scanning/saving/studying five photos a day.  I didn’t make it every day, but when I did, I felt like I was making at least a little bit of progress.
  • I saved each photo as a .JPG with just the 4-digit photo number as the file name.  Right now they’re all in one big directory, which makes it easier to upload them to the web (more on that later).  I later discovered this post by Miriam Robbins Midkiff, which says I should have saved them as .TIF files for preservation purposes.  I’m still glad I did them as .JPGs so I could share them online, but I may go back and re-save them as .TIFs.

Part of the reason this took so long is that I found that working with the collection all at once gave me a unique opportunity to really study each photo.  When you look at them all as a group, you can more easily see patterns…which houses are in the background, which photos show a particular woman wearing the same hat or necklace, etc.  Next , I’ll talk more about the clues I found throughout the project.  Then I’ll share some of the tools I found helpful as I tackled this project.

Photo by purple monkey dish washer

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