Maybe you recently found yourself cleaning out your baachan or jiichan’s garage or maybe you just happened to stumble upon a what-seems-to-be century old box in the back corner of a closet. No matter the way, if you have recently found yourself in the possession of a dauntingly large stack of old family photos and are wondering what to do with them, you’ve come to the right place.
My grandmother, Motoko Saneto, passed away in May 2021. After moving into her old home the following fall for grad school at USC, I was partially tasked with beginning the processing of her old belongings. After many mornings, afternoons, and nights spent sneezing through a cloud of dust and marveling at her meticulously-preserved kimono, I had amassed quite a collection of old photo albums, envelope stuffed with prints, and stacks of 4 x 6s.
I’ve always been a very memory-oriented person, creating a summer journal each year since I was in the fifth grade and always the friend who creates a Shutterfly album after each of our big trips. As such, I knew that it would fall on me to find a way to preserve and save these cherished images. Although my archival journey is still underway, I cannot recommend this process enough – it is a way to reconnect with your family’s history in one of the most powerful means possible: viewing photographs captured of their lives.
So, in the spirit of sharing best practices with those who may be in a similar position, here are my tips for archiving old family photos:
Disclaimer: I have no anthropological background nor experience working in a formal archival setting. This is merely what worked for me, a passionate amateur family historian and lover of collections.
1. Assess the challenge
For me at least, there was a seemingly endless supply of boxes and photo albums for me to tackle. It felt very intimidating to start, so much so, that I avoided beginning the process entirely for half a yeaMy first tip is to get an idea of what kind of project you have on your hands. Will your project require you to remove photos from photo albums? Do the photo albums have writings on the pages that would make this more difficult? What span of time do these photos include? How big of a project will this be?
Big question: what is the end goal of your archiving efforts? Do you want to find a new way to use the prints themselves (i.e. a new combination photo album, framed somewhere, etc.)? For me, my goal was simply to create a large archival record so that my family can always reference back to a particular era in our ancestors’ lives and pull a photo if we need it for a project or event. I didn’t prioritize the storage of the physical photos themselves once scanned (which saved me tons of time!).
I’d advise creating a space for yourself (or even getting a big plastic storage bin) to be the ‘home base’ for the entire archival journey. Photos are luckily very stackable and you can fit a lot into a box. Get everything into one area so that it won’t take over your entire living room!
2. Gather your arsenal
This is where I hope to provide the most help for beginning family archivists. These are the tools that worked for me and that I’d recommend (all available via Amazon!)
- Archival Photo Storage Bins ($22 at time of writing) - I went back and forth over where to store the photos once scanned. In the end, I figured that since my primary task was to digitize and electronically store, rather than organize the prints themselves, I decided to simply stack scanned photos in bunches into these large archival boxes. Although I knew I would be unlikely to ever touch the physicals again, I still wanted them protected from the elements and in a safe place. I would recommend buying archival grade storage boxes because some of the plastic / generic cardboard ones have chemicals that can degrade prints over time! They are pricey though, so feel free to search online for alternatives!
- Dedicated external hard drive ($60 at time of writing) - I am storing all of my scanned photos on a Seagate 1TB hard drive. I’ve found that this is more than enough storage and it’s nice to have it backed up somewhere separate from my personal files. I would also recommend considering a cloud-based storage option as well such as Google Drive or iDrive, just so you can have complete peace of mind that your family’s precious memories will always be preserved.
- Museum gloves ($14 at time of writing) - To be honest, I have no idea if these are actually necessary, but in every museum documentary or movie that I’ve watched, the archivists always wear white gloves. After a cursory Google search, I learned that the oils in our hands risk damaging the ink on photos (especially older ones). To be doubly safe, I ordered a pack of these gloves and wear it on one hand whenever I’m handling older prints.
- Scanner ($600 at time of writing) – This one is a bit of a doozy. My family decided to invest in the Epson FastFoto FF-680W. The sticker price is honestly quite appalling (it’ll set you back half a grand) but in our minds, this project was really, really important to us and we felt that there was no price we would put on preserving the photos of my grandparents + great grandparents spanning all the way back from when they first immigrated from Japan, their time in the camps, and the many moments in between. The Epson FastFoto is honestly really great — it will automatically feed and scan photos in bulk (up to 35 at a time), has a built in naming-software, automatically enhances photos, scans both front + back, and can also scan documents with an included plastic sheet. After scanning an estimated 6,000+ photos throughout this process, I would personally deem it worth it. However, if you are not prepared to invest in a fancy scanner like this one, there are other options available. Check out the Epson Perfection V600 ($350), Epson Perfection V39 ($75), or if your project isn’t too large, consider even using your phone!
3. Set-up your process
When it comes to archiving a mass amount of photos spanning an entire generation of your family, getting organized is key. For me, I established a naming convention that followed this format:
For example, here are some of the names of my family’s photos:
I would recommend leading with the date so that it can be easier to categorize on your computer at a later date, and providing a brief description + uniform naming convention will make the whole project easier to go back to down the line.
When sorting through your photos initially, I’d recommend trying to lump the prints into stacks based on the photo. For example: camp photos, parties, family portraits, even “misc” works as well if you know a group of photos were all taken in the same year.
5. Ask for help!
As you’re going through these photos, especially if you are the youngest generation and mainly archiving photos of grandparents, great-grandparents, and random other family members, it’s expected that you won’t know what was happening in a majority of them. This is where I’d recommend involving your wider family network. Not only will it be very special for them to relive some old moments when you ask them to identify a date or some details, but it will help you to categorize and spend less time trying to sleuth a date based on the print of your grandma’s retro 70s apron.
6. Take your time + enjoy the process
For me at least, I was initially quite determined to wrap up this project fast. I viewed it as another task to scratch off my to-do list after moving in and wanted maximum efficiency. However, now a full 2 years after starting my family’s archiving process, I’ve learned to slow down and take a minute or two after scanning a big batch of photos to actually look through and note the specialness of gleaning a glimpse into my family’s life from decades ago. I’ll often send my mom an especially dashing photo of my jiichan, who passed when I was just a baby, or send the family group chat a snapshot of my great aunts and uncles playing cards in one of the barracks at camp. Give yourself space to enjoy the process and appreciate the history of your family.
This article ended up being much longer than I expected, just like the time that it’s taking me to finish my family’s archival project. I hope that you found this guide helpful and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out. Becoming the resident family photo digitizer / archivist can be a daunting task, but I encourage you to at least get started and you never know what you’ll find in the process.
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