In today’s quick paced society, people often ask me what I think is the most important component to preserving their family history. The answer is simple. Photographs!
It is true that one picture is worth a thousand words…or can tell a hundred stories. There is documented evidence of early forms of photographs that date back to 1837. But, it wasn’t until 1900 when Kodak introduced the Brownie camera, that it opened up the world of photography to the average consumer. From that point forward people endeavored to stop time by capturing a person(s) in a single specific moment. Surprisingly, many of these early images still exist, either in people’s homes hidden away in shoe boxes…or hopefully in some type of organized and documented collection like the Alva Day collection archived at The History Museum of Hood River County. Sadly two issues have evolved as these photographs have aged:
Here are some tips for how to mount a rescue operation for your family photographs…before it’s too late.
1. Spend some time evaluating your collection of photographs to determine what images might have documentation and information available. It’s like emergency triage. You need to concentrate on the images that have names, dates, locations, etc. These are the ones you will rescue first. Set the ones without documentation aside. Maybe later you will find a way to put names and dates on these, but for now they are literally just nice pictures with no context.
2. Once you have gathered the photos that you will be focusing on preserving, you need to do one more review. Are the photos connected to your family specifically? If they are documented but have no direct link to your family members, home, farm, job, town, etc….then set them aside as well. At this point, you may want to consider donating them to a museum in whatever community they are associated with.
3. Now you need to start some cataloging. Sort the images into chronological order as much as possible. Get some acid free archive boxes and label them by decade. Then divide the images accordingly. Make sure that if there are details regarding specific images or collections of images that you are keeping that information with the photographs. You will need this later when you start putting details into a database. If you need to make notes on the back of any of the photos as you are sorting, use only an acid-free marking pen. Do not write notes on the image side of your photos. Use clean cotton gloves in handling your photographs.
4. Hopefully by accomplishing the sorting as described, you have narrowed the collection down to smaller more manageable chunks. One of the most difficult things in starting this type of project is that it can be very overwhelming due to the sheer volume and number of photographs most families have on-hand. You need to address one box at a time. Start it…slowly work through it…then finish it before going on to a new box.
5. If the organizing portion of this project is just not in your ability or time constraints, you may want to consider contacting the Association of Personal Photo Organizers to see if there is a representative in your area that can assist you. Or research a local archivist that might contract out to help you. Many are willing to contract out as your project assistant.
6. At this point, all you really have invested in the project is your time. Now you will need to evaluate your technical ability, computer equipment and budget before beginning the digitizing stage. If you need some great technical tips, check out this bulletin written for the Oregon Heritage Commission by Matt Carmichael, MLIS, from the History Museum of Hood River County. While it was written more for the purpose of providing direction for museums and heritage organizations, it applies to anyone that wants to embark on digitizing their collection, whether a museum or an individual.
There are actually several paths that your project can take now depending on the quantity of images, your time, your abilities and your budget.
Self-Scanning: This just means that you need to purchase a high quality color photographic scanner and have a computer and two back-ups options as well as some type of photo database and editing software. You will need to process all the images yourself. This is a front-line, hands-on approach that allows you to engage and have control over each and every image. It is you that will decide what tags or keywords would be developed in order to enter the photo data into the computer photo software. Key words and tags are essential to being able to relocate and find your photo files after the project is complete.
Here is a list of equipment and options to consider to get you started.
1. Computer / look for a 27″ screen (touchscreen is an added bonus), 12 GB of RAM, wireless, 3-in-1 card reader and lots of power / HP ENVY Recline 27-k150 27-Inch TouchSmart All in One Desktop / Amazon
2. Epson B11B198011 Perfection V600 Photo Scanner / Amazon
3. WD My Book 3TB External Hard Drive Storage / Amazon
4. Carbonite (on-line file storage) $60 per year
Digital Scanning Services: Great strides have been made in the last few years in regards to the types of services and cost options for digitizing old photographs. There are several reputable choices but you need to do your research to determine if this option is the best for you. Evaluate costs, method of scanning, what format/organization you need to provide for the service, where the work is done (local or shipped out), and finally, options for “cloud” storage after the work is completed. You can estimate anywhere from 17 cents to 50 cents per print with these companies plus the monthly cost of cloud storage if that is part of the services offered. If you are on a tight budget, you may need to triage your collection one more time and establish a priority system so you can separate out the most important images to process and then save the rest for later. Typically images such as weddings and family gatherings take precedence over a random snapshot of the dog or a Christmas tree. If you have trouble deciding which service to use, I suggest selecting a few similar photographs of a lesser value or importance and send it out to each one to be digitized. When they all come back, you have the tools necessary to evaluate quality, price, turn-around time and services. Also, always check for on-line offers and specials which will allow you to save a bit on money on this aspect of the project.
The world of digitizing photographs has changed dramatically over the past ten years and will continue to change and evolve as new technology and processes are developed every year. Take time to talk with other immediate family members. You can discuss what the overall goal for the project might be and what parameters you might want to set up for prioritizing images…then let everyone pitch into the budget pool and make your money stretch farther. You can share the digital files afterwards so everyone that contributed has access to the finished work.
Question? This all may seem overwhelming or unobtainable. You may be asking yourself why you would even need to go to all this effort over a stack of old pictures. Who will actually care? Why is it important to take these faded photographs and spend time and money to digitize them?
Answer: The images in your “shoe box” are not just a stack of old faces and unknown places, they are the very essence of your life story. Where did you come from? Who came before you? Why did they come? What were they like? The written words and the faded photos represent the pages of your family storybook. Without them, you have no evidence of who you are. To lose these wonderful images would mean shutting the cover of your book and silencing it for future generations. Personally, I can’t think of any better project for this year, than to get started today…preserving your family story through photographs.
Here’s a little glimpse of a chapter from my own family story that involved a photograph I didn’t even know existed.
Last year, I was fortunate to be asked to participate in a special project with the Family History Center at the LDS Church in Hood River. They wanted to have someone well-known in the community for heritage preservation to take on as a family research project. I was honored to be selected and completed the forms they provided in order to get started. After months, I received a phone call that my albums were ready. I had no idea what to expect and was overwhelmed and surprised by the amount of materials they were able to find. As I thumbed through the album pages, I marveled how many photographs were included. There was my Dad behind his desk at Phoenix High School. And one of my Grandmother’s work place. Going further and further back, I came across an astounding image. It was a Xerox copy of a photograph taken in 1865 of Ella Porter Russell (1855-1938), a family member on my mother’s side of the Mutz Family. (From the Ancestry.com family tree of Heard Hewitt) It shows little Ella at the age of 10 years old, standing in a beautiful dress. But what amazed me was the inscription on the back of the photograph.
“Ella Porter Russell Mutz, Plattville, Wisconsin, 10 years of age. This was the dress she wore when she sang the Star Spangled Banner, at the Memorial Service for Abraham Lincoln, two months after his death – for it took that long for the carriage to come. At least this is the story I always remember mother telling us. There is another picture of her in a skating outfit, and long curls – If I remember, her hair was probably cut off after measles, or something like that. I have not seen it for a long time.”
Thank you to Linda Colton and her wonderful volunteers at the Family History Center for discovering and preparing this special gift for me. One that I will cherish and pass on to my kids and grandkids.
Why do we need to preserve these family photographs? For Ella! And for all the Ella’s represented in each face and in every photograph found in a shoe box in the attic. They are “family” and their stories deserve to be told and preserved. Let’s get started!