This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union on Sunday, December 15, 2019.
I have an extensive collection of family photographs that have been passed down to me from elderly members of my family. The photos are currently stored in a variety of cardboard boxes, in yellowing photo albums, and others are haphazardly in plastic bags. Some are labeled, some are not. There are pictures of important family events mixed with photos of non-descript landscapes. I want to take your advice and honor this collection with proper storage, but there are easily five thousand photos to sort. If I'm completely honest, I feel a little bit of resentment that somehow, this became my responsibility. My siblings are interested in the photos, but the entire collection currently is stored in my guest room (not theirs). Do you have any thoughts on this type of situation?
-Slightly Resentful in Slingerlands
Dear Slightly Resentful,
A family archive is a high stakes, complicated collection: time is not on your side, yet you don't always feel empowered to make decisions on the materials. The good news is that the holiday season is (surprisingly) an ideal time to start addressing this collection. Follow these steps, and you will be well on your way to preserving your unique family history.
Establish Ownership and Set a Timeline
The first step is to figure out who wants to be involved in sorting, organizing, and properly storing the photos. Open lines of communication with any family members who might feel ownership over these pictures. This likely includes your siblings; it could also include aunts, uncles, and cousins.
I recommend sending a simple email stating the facts: you would like to know who is interested in helping with the process as the photos need to be sorted and properly stored. Keep the email free of unnecessary emotion and state your desire to accomplish this task in a timely fashion. Set a reasonable timeline and make sure you share these details in the email. If you begin to feel resentful for the burden of the responsibility, consider focusing on the positive aspects of completing the task.
Declutter and digitize the collection
Once you've determined who will be involved in the decluttering process, it's time to sort the collection. Start with a quick sort and eliminate any duplicates or obviously insignificant pictures, while also identifying the most important to save. Pictures that you are unsure of can go into a "maybe" pile. Immediately digitize the most important by snapping photos with your phones. I recommend backing up these photos by uploading them to Google Photos or Apple Photos. This is simple to do right from your phone, it is free, and it makes sharing the photos very easy.
Properly Store the Photos
Follow these basic guidelines for storing your archival family photos:
Always choose acid-free photo enclosures and albums.
Acid-free photo albums can be found at most major retailers.
Do not overstuff photo albums or storage boxes.
Store photos away from direct sunlight.
Choose a storage location in your home that is free from fluctuations in temperature and humidity (avoid unfinished attics, garages, and basements).
Make sure boxes or bins are bug and rodent-proof.
Consider scanning and printing the most fragile photos and including the scanned copy with the original.
Add Context (Make Memories with Memories)
I mentioned that this is an excellent time of year to declutter family photos. Why? Because there is a good chance you will be gathering together with your family for the holidays. Spending time with extended family allows you and your loved ones to create new memories while sitting around the table, identifying ancestors and sharing family anecdotes that are sparked by looking at the photos together. Recording this oral history to include with the pictures adds context and value to the collection of materials.
Here are some tips to make this experience even more special:
Make a video or written transcription of family members sharing meaningful stories.
Involve children: Have children come up with general questions to ask grandparents, aunts, and uncles or specific questions about a picture before you sit down together.
Set up a facetime call with family members who can't be physically present to include them in this process.
Create gifts from family photos
Digital reproductions of old family photos and objects make great holiday gifts. Frame copies of your favorite family photos, write a book of memories you've collected, or create a digital scrapbook with the pictures and stories together. There are many online services that make this a simple task to complete, such as Shutterfly and Mixbook.
Slightly Resentful, I hope that after reading this, you are feeling Considerably Excited at the opportunity to view all the photos and preserve your family history. This is an important task, and you are smart to make this a priority. Future generations of your family will be so grateful you took the time to do this.