Maegan Kasteler | Oct 15, 2018

Organizing and Preserving Photograph Collections

Our family photograph collections are easily one of our most precious possessions, so how do we protect and preserve them? In 2018 at RootsTech, Ari Wilkins, who works for the Dallas Public Library in the Genealogy Division, discussed best practices for identifying, cataloging, and storing these collections

Ari Wilkins

One of the first things that Wilkins recommends for you to do is to assess the situation and determine the scope of the project and your end goals. When doing this, she urges you to consider the time it will take, the budget, as well as your enthusiasm for the project.

Another thing to consider is your short-term and long-term storage. Short term you need a clean clear space to sort photos. Long term you need a space that is organized so you can keep your collections elevated off the floor in a dark cool place with humidity below 65%, possibly in the interior of your home. Make sure you store scrapbooks and photographs horizontally within their own boxes and don't use plastic bins.

How to Assess Your Collection

The first tip Wilkins gives you when assessing your collection is to do no harm. Wilkins encourages you to keep the collection in the order you found it, the seemingly random order may mean nothing to you, but it meant something to someone who previously owned the collection.

It's also important to consider the obstacles of your collection. If the photos are bound or mounted, don't tear the photos out of their homes. Doing this compromises the integrity of the scrapbook and the photograph. Also use this time to assess what damage has already occurred from glue, photo corners, ink, or creases and folds.

Best Ways to Preserve Your Collection

In the words of Wilkins, "Preservation is about slowing the effects of time and protecting your collection." Make sure you look for storage products that are P.A.T. certified to store your collection. Ensure that your photos are stored flats with no bends or curves, also, store like photographs together. Using individual acid-free folders or plastic sleeves inside of your boxes can help protect your photographs even further and help with organization.

Make sure that your boxes are flat, sealed boxes, meaning that there are no holes, handles, or vents. Your acid-free folders and plastic sleeves should fit exactly inside your boxes so that they cannot slide around and damage your photos. Make sure when you store negatives you store them in special plastic negative sleeves that protect them from dust and light in a cool dry location protected from humidity.

How to Catalog Your Collection

When beginning to catalog your collection, Wilkins recommends always having on hand a soft lead pencil, black sharpie, white vinyl eraser, rubber eraser, ruler, and cotton gloves. Use the pencil to label your photos, the black sharpie to label your sleeves or acid-free folders, the white vinyl eraser is for erasing sharpie off of plastic sleeves, and the rubber eraser for pencil errors. Use the ruler to measure your photographs and cotton gloves to handle them to avoid damage.

The first step to cataloging your collection is to name the collection and write a description. Use the description to share what you know about the grouping. You can include information about the time period, the original owner, how you came to possess it, and anything else you already know about the collection.

The next thing Wilkins suggest you do is number each photo, on the back, with the soft pencil. Make sure you do not use too much pressure because you can damage the front of the photograph. Create a naming system that makes sense to you and your collection, and it should be easily recognizable.

Once your photographs are numbered in the order they were when you inherited the collection you can organize them in whichever way you want. Now is the time to put your photos in their plastic sleeves or acid-free folders. Label each sleeve or folder with the photo ID. When choosing your plastic sleeve, choose it according to the size of the photo. You can also use dividers to separate your categories.

Next, it is time to create a spreadsheet to inventory your collection. When creating your spreadsheet, include columns for photo ID, description, size, date, color, photographer, and whatever else makes sense for your collection.

Now you can identify and document your photograph. Wilkins recommends thinking about how you would describe this photo to a stranger or someone who is blind. She also recommends listing persons from left to right and if they are standing or seated. You can use context clues to understand what is happening and date the photograph. Talk to as many people as you can about your photographs, you might learn something new, and others might notice something you did not. Use newspapers, yearbooks, church bulletins, and other sources to identify unknown people or to help date photographs. You can also use social media to help learn more about your photos.

Once you have completed your spreadsheet, it becomes an easily sortable and searchable document. Make sure you, as Wilkins suggests, keep a digital copy as well as a printed copy with the collection itself.

Consider Digitizing Your Collection

When digitizing your collection, Wilkins counsels us to scan our photos in the highest resolution possible, at least 300 dpi (dots per inch). Store your photos in either .tiff or .png format, as these are less corruptible files. Wilkins also recommends considering the type of scanner that you are using and encourages listeners to consider the tools they may find at their local library. Name your digital files to match the naming scheme you used when labeling your photos. Wilkins also explains that it is important to scan the front and the back of your photos. After scanning your photos, back up your digital copies in cloud storage, and consider using FamilySearch or social media to share what you've found.

Consider the Future of Your Collection

The final step to organizing your collection is to consider the future! Think about where it will be stored. Does it need to be stored off-site? How fragile is it? And what will happen when you are gone? Wilkins explains that you should consider adding a genealogy codicil to your will. That way you can ensure the future of your collection by designating an heir, or you can leave the collection to a library, museum, or historical society.

Watch the full presentation and others from 2018 here. Share your tips and tricks for organizing your photo collections with us on Twitter by tagging @RootsTechConf.

Maegan Kasteler

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