How to Organize Old Family Photos Without Losing Your Mind

Let’s see by a show of hands how many have at least one box crammed full of old family photographs out in the garage, up in the attic, or down in the basement. Look at that. Hands going up all over the room.

I’m guessing that anyone over the age of 20 knows what I’m talking about. Old family photos. We sure can’t get rid of them. But we’re not quite sure what to do with them, either. So mostly we do nothing.

Maybe it’s time to stop doing nothing.

Family photos of the family tree

 

Dear Mary:  I have a large trunk full of family photos dating from the early 1900s. How would you organize these? By dates? By persons? I am the only one left who is old enough to remember all of these people, but I think my children and descendants will be interested. It seems quite a task, and I don’t really know how to start. Thanks, Sue

Dear Sue: Start by getting a number of archival quality, acid-free photo-storage boxes. You can find photo-storage boxes at stores like Joann, Michaels, and Amazon. Pioneer is a well-known brand of acid-free photos boxes that come with metal identification plates and index cards, but there are others. Just make sure the boxes you get are clearly marked as “acid-free.”

Photo boxes

Nice photo boxes come in a variety of colors and stack easily, making it convenient for others to enjoy the photos, too. To me, acid-free photo-storage boxes are so much better than traditional photo albums. They help protect your loose pictures from the damage that can be caused by light, as well as the harmful chemicals found in developing envelopes, older photo albums, and cardboard shoe boxes. Stay away from plastic storage containers as these can trap moisture, which is a big photo no-no.

Sort chronologically

Start by sorting the photos chronologically. Any other sorting option is just too confusing and crazy-making. Think big picture by dividing first into two piles according to century. Next sort each pile by decade—even if that requires a wild guess—and so on until you have them in general order. If you don’t know the exact dates of pictures, you can often find clues such as printer’s codes on the backs of the pictures or even the hairstyles of the people in the photo.

Don’t worry if your chronological sorting isn’t perfect. Just getting the photos into order, where they are right side up and facing the same way will give you a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. You can always tweak the order later, which is the beauty and benefit of photo-storage boxes over albums. You may decide to make these boxes your permanent storage method of choice.

Ready to digitize

You may want to consider scanning the photos at some point to create a permanent digital record. Once they’re in proper storage boxes with index cards, it’s easy to lift out a small section, scan and then return them in the same order as you took them from the box.

If organizing all your photographs seems too overwhelming or time-consuming, you might want to consider hiring a personal photo organizer. You can find one near you through the Association of Personal Photo Organizers. I just did a search by filling in the country, city and state field, leaving all the other fields on the search form blank. I was delighted to discover that a member of APPO lives right in my neighborhood.

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4 replies
  1. Sue Horoshak
    Sue Horoshak says:

    My older sister has been copying old family photos and then she lists the people and location if known on the back with an ultra-fine marker. After she’s made copies, she brings old photos to the county historical society. They are happy to have photos of our grandparents and others from 1930’s and earlier. Having the names and dates on the back has helped them identify unknown people in other photos. The photos, stories, letters and telegraphs from WWII will all be properly cared for by the historical society. Descendants or relatives can purchase copies of items from the Stearns County Historical Society where our family items have been donated. Travelers from Germany have gone through and found photos of relatives that they knew little about. Our family has all agreed that sharing photos of historical value with organizations who know how to preserve them for generations is best for everyone. But one should check with the appropriate organization first, and not expect to just drop off a box at door.

    Reply
  2. Anne
    Anne says:

    I wish I had boxes of old photographs to organize. How lucky are the people who have that problem to be burdened with. Count yourselves lucky and blessed.

    Reply
  3. Victoria Statz
    Victoria Statz says:

    Thank you for this wonderful suggestion of photo BOXES. Like the person who wrote you, I have two full boxes of photos, some in albums and a lot of loose pictures. I started a couple times going through them, but as you said, it just got overwhelming. The boxes will be my answer. Being winter, this is a good time to start in again.

    Reply
  4. Joyce Stein
    Joyce Stein says:

    I am in the middle of scanning in multiple photos, albums and slides for a family project. One sister (there are/were13 of us kids) has a cache of 87 albums with many, many old photos she wanted to preserve and share with family members. I agreed to scan in each album if she would put captions on all the photos first. I then invested in a wonderful computer program called ‘ScanSpeeder’ that allows me to scan a full page of photos and as a bonus ‘ScanSpeeder’ automatically saves each photo separately. Next I do a bit of cropping, color correction and type the caption on front of the photo using Photoshop Elements 15. After each album is completed I post it on OneDrive and send an email so family members can share/download the photos from OneDrive. This project takes time but is invaluable for saving keepsake photos that otherwise could be moldering away on a shelf. Hopefully this will give others a ‘boost’ to save their family photo history before it is lost.

    Reply

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