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protecting family photos

protecting family photographs

I’ve already written about how valuable family photographs can be as a means for sharing family stories. Just one shot of kiddos lined up for a photograph outside a garage door or posing on a beach for a picture can unravel a wealth of stories. Taking even a few steps now to make sure that your family photos are protected will be worth it in the long run. Here are my top three tips:

Store them:
If you’re anything like me, the frequency with which you print photographs is likely very limited. But in my experience, most families have a shoebox (or an attic) full of old prints. In every archive that I’ve worked in, part of my job has been to spend hours sifting through donated snapshots. I’ve spent hours upon hours carefully marking the backs of photographs with pencil before slipping them into polyester sleeves and tucking them into acid-free folders that fit neatly into larger acid-free boxes. The honest truth is that these steps are pricey. Archival supplies can be expensive for archives to afford, let alone individual families. If you have a print collection of old shots, even if it’s not possible to individually house each photograph, keeping them away from colored papers or lots of plastic is a good first step. Investing in a few acid-free boxes and a ream of acid-free paper from a local office supply shop would be a even better. You can make your own protective sleeve by folding a sheet of acid-free paper in half and slipping individual photographs between the pages.

Duplicate them:
Duplicating your family photographs is definitely the best bet they have against damage. As we saw with Hurricane Sandy in October, floodwater can rise quickly and without much warning. I’m not sure that it’s realistic that people store all of their valuables in bank vaults far from flood zones, but taking the time to digitize your prints will mean that you still have a record even if the originals can’t be saved. While a lot of archives have state-of-the-art digital scanners, used carefully, a tripod and a digital camera can serve just as well. Start by photographing each of your prints individually. Make sure that there’s no glare obscuring the image. Each digital photograph you take should include only one print image. Once you’ve taken digital photographs of your prints, make sure to save additional copies to an external hard drive. The more places your photographs live, the better. I’m a big fan of uploading photos onto online repositories like Flickr, too. If your family photographs feature interesting shots of your neighborhood, or city, you can even think about contacting your local historical society to see if they’d  be interested in digital copies of your collection. Not all historical societies will have the means to take on digital copies, but it’s worth an ask.

Label them:
Finally, and maybe most important of all, label your photographs. If you’re considering labeling the original prints, make sure that you write on them with a pencil on a flat surface. If you’re digitizing your prints, save your photographs along with any information you have about them.  If you know who is in the photograph, or where it was taken, make a note. Programs like Photoshop or iPhoto and sites like Flickr allow you to save this information along with the photograph’s metadata. Finally, don’t forget about the photos you just snapped last weekend. I take an enormous number of photographs and properly labeling them is definitely daunting. Still, I know that taking a little bit of time to properly label them now, will save me loads of time down the road.

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