Old family photos are like cars, aren’t they? They need a place to live out of the elements when they aren’t being displayed or driven (your pictures do take you places, don’t they?). Hold that thought.
This morning I spent a few hours with a box of UFO photos I’ve had since the twilight year between the deaths of my mother and my aunt, exactly one year and one day apart. One winter morning after Mom had passed away, her older sister called and said that she had found a box of old family photographs she wanted to give me. It was a bright spot in a very bleak year.
She wanted to split the driving distance and meet in a park where her husband planned to take a hike. Which explains why we sat in the front seat of her car with an old cardboard boot box filled with older family pictures. The box held a motley assortment of black-and-white snapshots, tintypes, and 19th century cabinet cards. Auntie seemed to think most of the photos were from her father’s side of the family, but we only had a short time to look through the contents together and make notes of any people she knew.
I brought the box home and transferred the contents from the boot box to a similar sized archival box. When Auntie passed away a few months later I wished I had pushed for more information about how and where she found the box of photos. It’s been waiting patiently for a little attention until today.
How to Organize Old Family Photos
When I first started working with my family photo collection, I couldn’t decide on the “best” method for organizing the original prints. Should I sort by person? by event? (good for groups), by place? by type of photo? or by some assigned catalog number? I tried different methods and finally came up with a hybrid system that works fairly well. How I sort and organize depends on the project, or the end goal.
My objective for The Boot Box (that’s the official box label) was to sort, identify if possible, prioritize next steps, and move the contents to suitable storage. I am confident that the photos are all from the Brown/Kinsel side of the family, so I’m not worried about creating chaos in my archival closet. I’d like to integrate these loose photos with other sets so that I have a chance of recognizing people or events. My method for unpacking the box is something I came up with several years ago, and it works well for preliminary sorting and organizing. I call it “The Parking Lot Method.”
Step-by-Step Guide to Organizing Old Photos
Professional archivists know the importance of respecting original order within a collection. Collectors (such as your ancestor) often have good reasons for assembling certain photos together on an album page or placeing several snapshots in an envelope. Groupings can indicate families, events, or places. Physical similarities such as the border style on snapshots can indicate photos that were printed from the same roll of film. Maintain original order whenever possible, and look for clues to any items that appear to be grouped together.
Work with one box at a time. I spent about two hours sorting through photos in The Boot Box, making preliminary identifications, inventorying the contents, and placing items in new storage. The Jane and John Does I call UFOs.
The Family Curator’s Parking Lot Method:
1. Wash hands.
2. Unroll a large sheet of white butcher paper on the dining room table. I like paper better than a cotton sheet because the photos don’t get caught on the fabric and I like to jot notes on the paper. The table is the “parking lot.”
3. Unpack the box in layers, keeping any groups together. The contents of The Boot Box had been shuffled so many times that there wasn’t much order except the little stacks made by Auntie the day we looked at the photos together. Remove any staples, paper clips, rubber bands or other foreign objects that often rust or decay and damage photos. Keep the items together with a plastic paper clip or plain sheet of acid-free paper folded in half as a containing folder.
4. Survey the contents. It takes a little time to really look at what you have, to really notice the families and events that are pictured. When you feel like the faces begin to look familiar, start sorting.
5. Label 3×5 cards with names, places, or whatever makes sense. These will be the “parking spaces.” Group photos together with the “parking” label. I recognized some family groups and found captions or notes that helped identify several more. At the end of my session, I had several groups of photographs and other items:
- 1 group UFO Friends & Family 1940-50
- 1 group UFO Friends & Family pre 1920
- 1 group UFO Colorado and Kansas
- 1 group UFO Children
- 1 group large photos
- 1 old photo album falling apart
- 2 small albums
- several postcards, most blank
- misc. ephemera: unused address book, calendar, Christmas card, etc.
6. Finally, locate any albums or other identified photos. I brought my grandmother’s photo album to the table and reviewed it for captions and notes. This helped identify several more people and places.
The note on the reverse side of this Real Photo Post Card identified the children as “Lois” and “Ruth” and the writer as “Lora,” and showed a postmark date of 4 April 1912. The photo album page shows photos captioned with “Ruth & Lois Murphy” next to a picture of “Laura Goodbar and Ruth and Lois.” Great clues!
7. Continue identifying photos and grouping prints as much as possible. Some photos in my box looked like extras from an album that was falling apart. Most didn’t have captions, but I grouped them together because they all came from the same album. Other UFO photos were grouped by type of photo or place — several were obviously from a farm, others from family travel.
8. Place each group of photos in an acid-free photo storage envelope or archival folder labeled with the name and notes about any interesting photos or genealogy information you want to pursue. Add a folder number for cross-reference on your inventory sheet.
Photos grouped by person and listed on the inventory sheet with notes for Next Steps.
9. List each envelope or folder on an inventory sheet with the your notes and next steps. I marked damaged photos for priority scanning, and others for sharing with a cousin who might be able to help identify the subjects.
10. Re-house the contents of the original box in a new acid-free archival box. You may want to keep all the items together in one box to duplicate the original or store items in other files, depending on the organization of your family archive. I moved the contents of the old cardboard Boot Box to 12 archival photo envelopes (for snapshots), 4 file folders (for the large photos), and one book box (for the album) housed in my family archive. The inventory sheet was placed in my family archive genealogy reference files.
Professional archivists might call this “processing” a collection, but it doesn’t have to be complicated or overwhelming. One box at a time, step by step, the “parking lot” method has helped me organize hundreds of family photos and learn more about the people and events that were important to my family. It can be overwhelming to know where to begin organizing a family photo collection, but a simple method focusing on one box at a time can help you move forward in organizing your family photo archive.
For help with scanning resolution, naming files, and organizing your digital image library, see Part One in How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally available from Family Tree Books and Amazon.com.
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