Sunday, March 8, 2015

Are We Wrong About Preserving Old Photos?

William Setchel Learned, about 1900

I think we can all agree that preserving old photos is a good thing. But it takes a lot of effort to preserve individual photos. What's the best way to preserve them? How will we know they will still be accessible in the future?


When I first got interested in the idea of preserving old family photos my attention and efforts were focused on scanning individual photos. I scanned each photo as both a tif and a jpg file format. The tif is used to archive the photo at a high resolution and the jpg makes the image a reasonable size that can be shared via email or on the web.

I organized my photos with file names that attempted to identify the people, place and/or date of the photos. I also saved the photos to directories with relevant names. I didn't, however, create descriptions for the photos or add meta tag information to the photos.

It was quite a bit of work getting this far!

Digitizing the photos meant that the old family photos were much easier to share. I could share individual photos via email or on Facebook. I could also put a whole directory of photos on a CD or thumb drive to quickly share everything with family.


Soon I realized that simply scanning photos would not be enough to preserve them. And so I entered into the printing phase. As many of you already know, to this day the Library of Congress only accepts printed copies of books. With good reason! A printed book can last hundreds of years. A digital one will become obsolete quickly as file formats change and improve.

Thus the idea of printing photos came along in order to preserve them longer. I admit I never really caught on to the idea of printing all my old family photos. It's just not practical.

My extended family has digitally shared hundreds of old family photos. First there's the cost of printing that many photos, though admittedly these days it's fairly inexpensive. Another, perhaps more important consideration, is that your local pharmacy is now digitally printing them on a laser scanner rather than the photos being processed like in the old days. Laser printed photos don't last as long. And then there is the issue of organizing and storing all the printed copies.

Some of you are very good about spending the time to organize photos into boxes or albums. I am not. And, of course, let's add on the cost of buying archival quality boxes and albums. Yes, it is our family heritage we're preserving but I don't have lots of extra money lying around to spend on stuff like this.

Lastly, I just can't display 800+ photos in my house. I have room for maybe twenty ancestral photos to be displayed on walls and shelves. Any more than that is not an option.

So while I agree that printing is important, it just didn't happen for me.


The thing that has been on my mind lately has been cataloging. I'm starting to think that this is the best way to handle old family photos.

The idea is to create a catalog - a list - that contains the following information (if known): date of photos,  people in photo, location, file name, file formats (jpg and/or tif), description, name of owner of the original copy of the photo, date scanned. I think a file numbering system for the photos would also be appropriate. Photo type and size of photo would be nice too but that might be too much to ask if lots of different people are scanning their own collections.

Then I would print the catalog. I would put the catalog information in the front section and a copy of each image in the back section identified by the file number (this is simply for the sake of formatting and saving space. Photos would take up too much space if interspersed amongst the text.) The catalog would be printed as a book and shared with all family members. [Just to clarify, the catalog would contain the images. And not thumbnails. In some cases they could be full images but if the images are very large they could be reduced to about the 4x6 range.]

I like the idea of a catalog, while not as pretty as albums, because it lets everyone know what photos exist, when they were last scanned and who owns them. Then if an original photo disappears a search can be made from a more logical starting point. The durability of a book means it will last for a long time and we will know that all these photos existed at the time of printing.

A catalog also lets people determine whether they have a digital copy or not, based on the catalog. If they don't, they can then seek it out. People can pick and choose which photos they would like to print and display in their homes or use for other purposes.

What I don't know is whether any photo organization programs, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, has the ability to print a catalog such as this. I was thinking of creating a catalog in Excel and then formatting the photos myself. Then I would combine the two into a pdf document that can be printed. If the capability were already available in existing photo that might save time.

I asked my friend Maureen Taylor, the Photo Detective  about her thoughts on the best way family historians can preserve their photos when they have limited time and money. Here's what she said:
"Preserving and organizing family photographs doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive. It’s all about planning and work flow. Scan, label, and file are the key steps to caring for pictures. Free organizing software like Picasa, money-saving apps like Snip Snap and making use of programs you already have (like Excel) can manage money and minutes. I create an excel spreadsheet when sorting a collection, scan at 600 dpi, upload images to Picasa on my computer and then file everything in acid and lignin free boxes. Take small steps to avoid being overwhelmed and don’t be afraid to ask relatives to help."
More tips from Maureen can be found in her books Photo Organizing Practices and Preserving Family Photographs.

How do you preserve your family photos? Do you like the idea of creating a catalog or would you rather use archival boxes and albums? And if you know of an easier way that I can create my catalog please let me know!


  1. Love the idea of cataloging - especially as a means of sharing photos with family.

  2. If you put the metadata in the images which can't be any harder than making a spreadsheet out of it - in my opinion easier, then you can export it into a text document - one or hundreds at a time. I can do this easily with Photo Mechanic. XnView says it does it but all I get is [IPTC] where the actual data should be. I'm pretty sure ExifToolGUI will also do it.

    OR you can print your photos to a PDF with the metadata printing out underneath them. If, as you say, the photos are numbered, people can pick the ones they want to print to paper for themselves.

    I've written about this type of thing ad nauseum at JLog.