I keep lots of digital photographs. Hundreds—thousands?— of family members, colleagues and others reside in my collection and are, as Susan Sontag said, “illuminated by a flash, fixed forever.”
As forever as I can manage, that is. Digital photos, like all computer files, are disturbingly prone to corruption and loss. As someone long involved with digital preservation, I worry about things like bit rot, failed hard drives, obsolete media and other technological risks. Sobering threats all, but they aren’t the biggest problem facing my personal digital files.
Frankly, I am the major issue. Risk correlates directly to the time and attention I allocate to manage the collection. Time to record metadata—significant details about the who, what and where—for each picture; attention to organize files into meaningful categories. The work is seductively easy to defer. It’s easy to assume that all the important details remain safe in my head.
There will always be time in the future, right?
I do some things fairly well. I have a specific directory on my computer for all photos, and the directory is duplicated using a web-based file hosting service. There are sub-directories arranged by year, and within them are additional categories arranged by subject. This basic level of control arrived some years after I shot the first digital photo or scanned the first 35mm slide, however.
Originally I had unselected and uncorrelated batches of photos stored in separate directories on separate computers, storage devices and online services. My approach was to get the images off the camera and work on them later. Later was, well, always later. Every so often anxiety about losing an especially valuable group of pictures would compel me to copy them among devices. That left me with many duplicate images within the corpus as a whole. Things were getting progressively more disorganized as time passed. Motivation for change came when I started thinking about estate planning. “How,” I was forced to ask myself, “can I pass this photo mess on to my kids?”
The prospect of bequeathing a regretful patrimony focuses the mind.
The heart of the matter was that most of my photos were essentially opaque. It was hard for me to know exactly what I had and really hard to find a specific item. In considering my mortality, I knew that it would be extremely hard for anyone else to use these disorganized and unidentified photos, even though they document important family memories. I couldn’t even be sure the pictures would be found at all postmortem.
It took me days to track down all my stray photographs on my multiple computers, external hard drives and social networking sites. Organizing files by year and then by subject took a while longer, after which many duplicate images were revealed. I meticulously compared the duplicates to find the best shot with the highest resolution and ruthlessly trashed the others. I then change file designations such as “DSC_0045.JPG” to a descriptive title for each photo, while also adding metadata about the people, places and other significant things pictured.
My next step was, as our very own digitalpreservation.gov personal archiving guidance says, to make copies and store them in different places. I copied the centralized photo directory from my home computer to an external hard drive, which I stored in a remote location. I then used a web-based file hosting service to create exact copies on two home computers and a cloud server. Finally, I printed out a written list of all the photos as they are organized, along with details about where they are stored; that went into my safety deposit box.
To be completely honest, I still have lots of work to do making my photos easier to find and use, especially by adding metadata. But, with everything centralized and securely backed-up, it is possible to devote a few minutes of spare time each week slouching toward better descriptions. Having a basic organizational scheme in place also helps me categorize and store the steady flow of new pictures.
Generalizing from my own experience, let me offer some conclusions. First, people other than you probably care deeply about your personal digital photographs, and it’s a great investment of your time to make those photographs as useful as possible. Second, start where you are and aim for incremental improvement, while ignoring the burden of expecting immediate perfection.
To put it another way: personal digital archivists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your opacity!