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.
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.”
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.
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.