On a recent trip I visited a funky vintage store to see if anything caught my eye. While I was easily able to keep myself from buying any jewelry or taxidermy, I came across a number of displays of family photographs available for sale.
Not only were there bowls of loose photos, there was a dis-bound photo album from an African-American family that seemed to be from the 1920s and 1930s, where everyone and every place was identified.
This saddened me. And led me to think about my own experiences in trying to make family photos more preservable.
I have recently undertaken an effort to deal with the archive of photos that I have in my possession. Some are older family photos from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I have my father’s baby book from the 1920s. Some are from my parents, and include slides taken by my father in Asia in the 1940s-50s. I have my photo albums from my teenage years when I had my first camera. Most — except the slides — are labeled with names and dates.
When I switched to digital, I put my images on flickr, and tagged them with some degree of regularity. Dates from file headers, some places, some names.
Then there are my own photo albums from the 1980s through the 2000s. They are chronological, but not labeled. I have discovered that I have no idea where some were taken, or who they depict. Last year I digitized a number of photos and slides for a friend who had lost her photo collections. The digitization was easy. The metadata was hard. Keeping the metadata with the files was even harder. I resorted to file naming conventions (event_details_year) where I could, and created a spreadsheet with as much metadata as I could supply, such as people or places, and more granular dates such as birthdays or holidays.
So, getting back to those photos in a bowl at a vintage store. There are two topics to consider:
What will your friends and family do with photographs that have no accompanying labels, written on the back or in albums? Will they be of enough value to retain, or will they end up at a garage sale or antique store?
What will your friends and family do with digital image files with no metadata?
So the advice is:
Record what you can about photos or digital images as soon as you can.
Keep the metadata and descriptions with the files and photos. Name the files with understandable names, and label the backs of photos with soft lead pencil (not ink). If you have photo albums, write out captions. If you upload to online services, caption and tag them. (For reference, see this blog post on saving digital photos.)
If I can’t remember who is in a photo that I took only a few years ago, it’s likely that no one else will, either. If no one knows what the photos are, no one will value them enough to preserve them.
How would you save your photos and images for posterity?