History at Home: Preserving Family Photos

I love photographs, especially old ones. Almost everyone (or at least those of us born before 2000!) has a collection of precious old family photos that are sitting in a box somewhere. An an archivist, I cannot stress enough the important of digitizing these family photos to preserve them for the next generations.

Years ago, my family’s home was partially flooded during Hurricane Floyd. Many of our family photos were ruined in the flood. I now only have a few photos left of my childhood, and many other precious memories were lost. Digitization can prevent loss of memories – even if the physical photos degrade or are destroyed. It can also help you share photos with loved ones and make high-quality print copies without damage to the originals.

Print permanence varies based on what kind of photograph you have and how good the conditions in which you’re storing it are. But, trust me, your prints are not permanent. They are degrading and, eventually (probably sooner than later), they are going to be damaged beyond repair – even if they are stored in an ideal environment.

I recently digitized just a few of our family photographs – though there are still many more to do! I thought I would share a few lessons learned from my experience, and a few tips on how to preserve your family photos through digitization.

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1. Use a good scanner.

The are lots of great scanners out there that can create high-quality scans from both photos and film.  I recommend getting a good scanner that is designed to scan photos and that scans a resolution of 600dpi. This Epson scanner is one of the best, and is fairly reasonably priced. This is an important project – you do not want to use a low-quality scanner or (gasp!) your phone if you intend to truly hang on to these digital files.

As you are scanning, I recommend scanning images at 600dpi for high resolution images, though some would say that 300dpi is just fine. It is fine to scan multiple photos as a “batch scan,” and to scan the area around one photo rather than cropping it with the scanner software. Both of those things can be taken care of with a little cropping in an editing program later on.

I would not recommend using an editing program to do anything other than crop your photographs – you’ll want to preserve the original image, not an edited version of it. If you truly want to make some edits, edit a copy of your original digital file.

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2. Come up with a naming/filing system.

Lumping all your scanned photos into a general iPhoto library will turn into a big mess pretty quickly – especially if you are saving a lot of photos. When I was scanning, I made four sub-folders within the “Family Photos” folder on my desktop – one for each generation. I had “kids” (my generation), “parents” (any photos of my parents or people in their generation), “grandparents,” and “great-grandparents.” I labeled each scanned digital file accordingly (For example: “family last name_k_0001” to mark the first file in the “kids” folder). It doesn’t matter what system you have – but it is important to have a system and to stick with it. This will help you sort and save, and will also help you easily locate files later on.

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3. Digitized photographs are not necessarily permanent. Make digital copies and keep the original prints.

Digitized photographs are not a replacement for the originals. Data isn’t necessarily permanent – especially in this age of rapid technological advancement. Save your photographs as TIFF files, which is a less lossy file format than JPEG or PNG. Then save them (from the original digital file, if possible) in multiple digital spaces. TIFF files are fairly large files, so you might want to save them on an external hard drive or large-capacity USB flash drive rather than on your computer’s hard drive. Cloud storage options such as Dropbox Pro and SmugMug offer huge amounts of storage and are a great backup space just in case anything happens to your external hard drive. They also allow you to share your photos easily.

Hold on to the original photographic prints, and store them in a good environment. Ideally, your printed photos should be kept in an acid-free plastic sleeve and put into a binder or photo storage box. Photos smaller than 8×10 can be stored on their sides, but photos 8×10 and larger should be stored flat.

4. If you’re overwhelmed, hire a pro.

This is an important project – but, depending on how big your collection of family photographs is, it can be overwhelming and very time-consuming. If you are thinking about purchasing a new high-quality scanner and an external hard drive just for this project, you may want to consider hiring a pro for about the same price. There are professional services available that will scan your family photographs (prints and negatives) for a fairly reasonable fee. ScanCafe seems to be one of the best. I am lucky to be a student at NYU, which has its own Digital Studio. If you are a university student, or if you have a university near you, you could look into whether there is an IT, LIS, or archives student there that would like to take on your digitization project for a small fee – especially if your family photographs are significant to scholarship in some way.

I hope this helps – and perhaps encourages you to get on that digitization project you’ve been planning for years! There is truly nothing more special than memories captured in photographs, and it is just as important to preserve your precious photographs as it is to take the picture in the first place!

Say cheese,

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