“All these pictures have gotten out of hand. I’m going to organize them once and for all!”
Sound familiar? We make these sweeping declarations and start out with high hopes until life intervenes. Organizing the family history documents and photographs can be tricky, not to mention time-consuming, and every genealogist has their own way of doing things. For me, first organizing documents and notes by my 8 great-grandparents’ surnames was a great place to begin. I created a system of files and binders sorted by those surnames, sometimes with subcategories. Sorting and preserving the family pictures was the next natural step.
For photos, I decided at first to use a similar filing system that I used for documents and notes, but I wanted to keep the photos separate from the papers because the paper can degrade the old photographs. Some photos were with the documents and some were in various places such as photo boxes and tucked in between pages of photo albums–not attached but just tucked inside, so if I lifted the photo album a certain way, they slid out! Is this how I treat something I value? Some of those photographs are originals, onlys, one-of-a-kind mementos of my ancestors. Enough! So, the Great Photo Sort began.
Where to start? It was overwhelming. The first hurdle was to pull all the photos together in one central location and to just begin with a manageable amount: one box, one folder, one album, one drawer. It was time to dive in, but I had to draw a line somewhere, so I decided to focus first on loose photographs–those not attached to album pages. The attached ones would have to wait.
I thought I’d have eight piles for the great-grandparents’ surnames, but it turned out that I had many photos of a few family lines and almost none of the others. So, I switched to just the four grandparents’ lines. Something I had not anticipated were the many photos of friends, neighbors, and scenery. Keep or toss? Those became new piles to deal with later….not indefinitely, but later. That’s part of the reason why this post is subtitled Part 1.
The second challenge was to go quickly without stopping to analyze every picture except to decide on a surname pile in which to place it. There were many photos that went into the I-don’t-know pile. I knew that getting sidetracked would be my downfall if I went that route, so I kept going until the all the loose photos were sorted. The process did take several days, but I was willing to live with the mess temporarily. Occasionally, I did pause to study a photo before finally admitting that I still did not know who the people were.
The third step was to call my sister, my genealogy buddy, for help with the I-don’t-know pile. Genealogy can be a solitary pursuit, but it sure helps to have a buddy in the family with the same interest! It’s especially handy if that person lives in the same town. Together, we were able to figure out to which surname pile most of the unknowns should go. Then we made a separate pile to show an older relative on the next visit. (Action item on the do-list: plan that visit soon!) My sister also had stories about some of the relatives in the pictures, which turned an ordinary afternoon into a most memorable one. With her encouragement, I was able to let go of some unknown friends and blurry vacation photos. To let go meant to actually throw away. I did keep the ones of interesting scenes, such as the ones my parents took of an unfinished Mt. Rushmore on a trip to South Dakota, and others I thought may one day be useful for placing family and events in certain locations.
I needed to wind down The Great Photo Sort: Part 1 so I could use my kitchen table again and of course, to have a feeling of success for getting this far. There were so many pictures in a few of the surname piles that I decided to sort them by decades—1910s, 1920s, and so on. I put them into acid-free photo boxes by one surname or two, depending on quantity. Now I had my pictures organized somewhat chronologically. The system wasn’t perfect yet, but at least it was now somewhat useful for research instead of just a mess.
Old photographs can be an amazing wealth of information. As a genealogist, I could not do a careful analysis with my pictures all in a jumble. I noticed during the Great Photo Sort that there were names, dates, and even addresses on the backs of some photos, which caused me to say a silent thanks to the ancestral angel in heaven that wrote such captions! Was I finished? No, not by a long shot, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that I was well on my way. I knew I needed to go back later to write on the backs of unlabeled photos, to study and make notes, and to decide what to do with those old, falling-apart, photo-damaging albums of the past. My intention was to create a new, safe, and logical way to display all the photographs, preferably in archival-quality albums. In the meantime I had created a huge sense of accomplishment and a handy system. I also reclaimed my kitchen table!