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Preserve those family memories

Got a jumbled box of old photos you’ve been promising to organize ‘someday’? Daina Makinson shares her secrets for getting the job done, and enjoying it too

When faced with a loose box of old photos, we all feel at sea. The pictures might all be of our family over the generations, but how can we link all the individual photos into some sort of overall sequence, or fit them into some sort of order that helps us put each photo into a context we can understand?

Daina Makinson.
photo: Supplied

Our usual first impulse is to put the photos into a timeline. But that may not be so easy, says certified photo organizer Daina Makinson from Guelph, Ont. You’ll likely find that many of the print photos can’t be dated.

Instead, she recommends sorting them into “stories” such as people, places, holidays, etc. She suggests writing category names on index cards, laying them out on the dining room table, then picking up a bunch of photos and sorting them into piles accordingly.

If a pile gets too big, you can subdivide it into sub-categories, say Makinson. For instance, the “people” category can be further subdivided into immediate family, cousins, and grandparents. Holidays can be subdivided into Christmas, Halloween, etc. If a photo fits into more than one pile, don’t get stuck, Makinson warns. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

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Makinson also recommends “editing” the number of photos you save as you go along. “Not all photos are worthy of keeping,” says Makinson, who uses four criteria when deciding if a photo should go.

  • Does the photo evoke an emotion?
  • Does the photo tell a story?
  • Does the photo have historical importance?
  • Is it the only one? (A blurry photo of Uncle Fred is worth keeping if it’s the only one you have of him.)

If you don’t know who is in a photo, and no one else knows who it is, Makinson says you shouldn’t feel obligated to keep it.

If you have doubles of a photo, Makinson suggests sharing them with others. Keep the doubles in a basket by the door to give to visitors as they leave or include them with your Christmas cards, she suggests.

Once you’ve made your piles, the photos can be scanned and made into photo books using a site such as Blacks for convenient display and sharing.

Digital copies should be backed up but don’t throw out the originals, warns Makinson. The original photos are still the most reliable form of backup since digital files can become corrupted or outdated. The originals are best stored in an archival box in a fireproof safe or archival location, she says.

What if your photos are in sticky back magnetic albums? Cindy Sinko, archives technician at the Stratford-Perth Archives in Stratford, Ont., recommends removing photos, if possible, from such albums because the acid leaches into the photos and the plastic sheeting tends to stick to the pictures.

Before dismantling albums or scrap books, she advises taking a picture of them. But also be cautious. If photos cannot be easily removed, it is better to leave them be.

If you want to put some of the old photos on display so you can enjoy them every day, Sinko recommends following some steps to minimize damage to the photos. First of all, use ultra violet filtering glass or acrylic in the frames. Limit the amount and intensity of light the photo is exposed to by using a lower intensity of light, turning off lights when not in use, and placing shades on windows to block the sunlight. For best results, seek the advice of a professional framer.

Those digital photos

What about the thousands of digital photos lurking on your hard drive? Makinson’s method for managing digital photos starts with gathering them into one folder. She then recommends using special software to remove duplicates. Using the date stamp associated with each digital photo, the pictures can be sorted chronologically.

Keep only the best photos, Makinson recommends, and rename these files with the names of the people or places in the photos which allows you to use the search function to find them more easily in future. Other photos can be moved to another folder.

All photos should be backed up, ideally in more than one location, to prevent loss in case of fire, flooding, etc. Makinson also likes to create photo books with digital photos to make it easier to enjoy them and share them with others.

Working with old photos and documents

From Cindy Sinko, archives technician, Stratford-Perth Archives, Stratford, Ont.

When it comes to storing papers and photographs, the storage conditions are critical. Heat will make paper brittle and dry while moisture can cause mould and mildews to grow, and invite insects which can eat away at the paper.

Avoid storing photos and papers in garages, attics or basements. An interior room of the house where fluctuations in temperature or humidity are minimized is best. Keep documents and photos away from the light which can cause the writing on paper documents and photos to fade. Beware of mould which can be dangerous.

When handling family papers and photos, be sure to have a clean, clear workspace before taking the items out of storage. Don’t eat, drink or smoke around originals. Wash your hands before handling paper and don’t apply any lotion, which can stain paper. Wear nitrile or cotton gloves when handling photos.

Remove fasteners such as staples, elastics and paper clips. Store papers in archival quality boxes and enclosures. Folders and papers used should be acid-free — acid is the enemy of paper made from wood pulp because it causes the strands in the cellulose in the paper to break down into smaller pieces.

Don’t crowd the papers in file folders or boxes, and make sure the items fit in the enclosures.

If possible, remove photos from sticky back albums since the acid leaches into the photos and the plastic sheeting tends to stick to photos. Unwaxed dental floss can be used to remove stuck photos. A small metal spatula heated by a blow dryer could also be used. If photos cannot be easily removed you are better off to leave them be.

Use mylar sleeves for paper documents such as deeds, wills, letters, post cards, newspaper clippings, marriage, baptismal or death certificates, receipts, and diaries. These allow you to handle and view the documents without touching them.

Never use scotch tape or pen on photos or documents. Use only acid-free glue such as a UHU glue stick.


About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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