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Confessions of an Imperfect Personal Digital Archivist

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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.”

Off-camera flash = bliss, by J. Star, on Flickr
Off-camera flash = bliss, by J. Star, on Flickr

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?”

Family pictures on my iPhone, by wlef70, on Flickr
Family pictures on my iPhone, by wlef70, on Flickr

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.

Generation Gap, by quinn.anya, on Flickr
Generation Gap, by quinn.anya, on Flickr

My next step was, as our very own 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!

Comments (17)

  1. Bill, you are an inspiration! I attempted with no success to crowdsource my photometadata among family members on Flickr — obviously I’m just going to have to pay the next generation if I want to get this done.

    • That may be the only recourse! Thanks for your comment.

  2. This is basically the same advice we give our students – back everything up in layers – multiple platforms and locations.

    But as anyone knows who’s dug through grandma’s shoebox of unidentified photos, the best way to pass on your photographic legacy is to interpret them for future generations.

    Hence, we scrapbook. Taking the time to curate the photos, journal about who’s in them, what’s happening and how you/they felt at the time will be far more valuable than even a tagged archive over time. Moreover, you can print these pages on photographic paper and have a stable, preservable record.

    So while the digital archive is valuable, don’t forget the interpretation!

    • Great advice!

  3. I think I am going to need 36 hour days for this! 🙂

  4. Great post! I have almost completed the development of a consumer cloud storage app that maps user’s personal content (photos, videos, diaries) onto an interactive and intuitive timeline that can be further organized by categorizing the richest content of one’s life into life Milestones (grads, weddings, births, etc.) and the richest content of a given year into Yearbooks (holidays, vacations, birthdays, favorites, milestones). All content will have searchable metadata and sharing abilities (P2P & email notifications) and user’s can connect their accounts to their most intimate and meaningful long-term relationships (family & close friends) to view the shared content discreetly (ie everyone’s view of another account is unique based on sharing at the individual asset level).
    Last but not least there is an e-beneficiary that the user selects and provides a trigger mechanism to allow for the account to pass to future generations posthumously. So excited to unveil our product very shortly. Apologies if this comes off as self-promotion but it ties in to your post perfectly.

  5. I guess I’m not the only one who has this problem! I am trying to get a handle on my digital photos (a constant stream from late 2006) by going back through my photo archives and describing the subjects of each day’s photos in a spreadsheet; the photos themselves are on a standalone hard drive, but I should have an offsite backup for all of them too (not just the ones I’ve posted to Flickr, which are effectively backed up by Flickr…as long as it exists). As someone who has bought interesting old photographs in antique shops and regretted not knowing who the people in the photos were, this is very timely advice. Thanks for this post!

  6. What suggestions are there for doing the “advertising” within your circle of people in the digital photos to make them aware and get them interested in the collections that you have preserved?
    We are all familiar with those seemingly precious photos albums that get put out w/the garage sale stuff because no one in the family, other than the compiler, had the opportunity, or maybe the desire to look at those photos.
    In addition, with the proliferation of digital preservation by everybody, will there just be too much of all this to handle?


    Janis: Thanks very much for your comment. For my family’s 35mm slide collection, I created a set of CD-ROMs complete with a custom-printed label and case, which I then distributed to my siblings, my kids and others. At least those photos are now duplicated six or so times, which increases the odds of them persisting into the future.

    Ultimately it comes down to one or more people per generation caring about family photos and other memories enough to hand them off to the next generation. But you hit on a key point–their are now so many personal digital files that “archiving” them all for the future is getting harder. Maybe the best thing is for us to be highly selective and only keep the most important items. Not that that is easy either!


  7. If you are willing to share this information, I’d be very interested in hearing what your file naming conventions are and how you organize your metadata (and whether that metadata is embedded or housed separately in a different database). Thanks for a great post!

    • Amy: My file naming approach is very relaxed (maybe too relaxed). I try to capture the general subject, such as “Baltimore trip Hotel Belvedere 1” (the number is used when I keep multiple shots of the same subject). I do feel that embedding metadata into the photos themselves is definitely the way to go, and use editing sw to enter IPTC details. There is a really good website,, that provides lots of great tips about metadata–check it out!

  8. Re: Denim Smith post. I am interested in your stated efforts. How do I contact you?

  9. Which web-based file hosting service did you use?

    • A great question, but one that unfortunately I can’t answer here, given our policy at the Library. You might plug the phrase “web-based file hosting service” into your favorite search engine–the top results should give you the names of the leading providers.

  10. Do you print any pics? It’s actually not a bad way to preserve the best of the lot.

    • Your are quite right–printing is a great way to preserve some selected photos, and I’ve done that. I’ve had a couple of issues: first, I can’t print out everything, as I just have too many digital pictures. Second, some of the prints (not all) tend to fade over time. It must have something to do with either the paper or the ink.

  11. I don’t understand the idea of putting metadata into spreadsheets. There are perfectly good programs around for exactly that purpose. Photo Mechanic, GeoSetter and XnView, for instance; the latter two being free. There are fields for captions, keywords, addresses, sources, copyright, etc; more than most people will ever use. They also handle GPS co-ordinates.

    Amongst the advantages of using dedicated software are Search functions including Search & Replace, printing to pdf in various formats, slideshow creation with chosen fields. It goes on.

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