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I found about 400 old family photographs in a box, most of the displayed relatives can't be identified. I created a spreadsheet where every image will get a line, I’ll add the studio then, the size, the approx. year, the paper that was used, the place of creation, captions, clues and names given to me by other relatives. This will help me to bring images together where I see no link so far (by sorting the columns).

Before I can do this, I want to number the images. Writing on the back wouldn’t work in all cases, because the backsides are partly black (or artworks themselves). I thought about putting adhesive paper dots with numbers written on them on the backs.

How would you make individual images identifiable and sortable for my workflow described above? What is your solution of choice? Do you put every image in a plastic sleeves that is labeled?

Thank you for your answers.

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Don't write on the pictures! Maybe I just feel this way because I'm a historian and abhor the altercation of historical objects, especially those with significant value. However, writing on them, even the backside, could cause bleeding through to the front side on old photos, or deterioration.

Your best course of action would be to

  1. Scan every photograph, front and back. Make sure you note which front goes with which back.
  2. Make written note of every watermark or such, especially if it's not visible in the scan.
  3. Put each photo in its own plastic sleeve and store it out of the sun. Be sure not to store it to a humid or dry environment. Label each sleeve and be sure to return each photo to its respective sleeve if you ever remove them.
  4. To prevent damage from handling, remove the photos from their sleeves as little as possible. Prefer to use the digital scans.

You will be able to preserve the originals for years to come.


Related questions that might be of use to you:

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  • Thank you for your answer. I will definitely scan all of them and store them as tiff files with caption and sufficient metadata. I am not so disinclined to write on the backside since such inscriptions from later generations have often been the key to a picture's content for me. So you would go with plastic sleeves. How do you label them? Will markers last for decades on plastic? – lejonet Aug 12 '13 at 19:55
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    I would write the label on piece of paper and either put that inside the sleeve or firmly attach it to the outside. If you put it on the inside of the sleeve, be sure that the writing is facing outwards. I'm not sure how long markers will last on plastic, bud I wouldn't trust it not to smudge. – American Luke Aug 12 '13 at 20:37
  • What type of pen should I use to write on paper that is stored inside the sleeve with the photo? Pencils? Thank you. – lejonet Sep 4 '13 at 0:19
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    Pencils tend to get fainter and smudge over time. I would use an ink pen. Let the ink dry thoroughly before placing it inside the sleeve. – American Luke Sep 4 '13 at 11:41
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An ideal way to organize photos is:

  1. Sort photos into families
  2. Store photos into albums that are dedicated to each family which contain acid-free archival plastic sheets
  3. Label the plastic for each photo with an identifier (family-number works well, such as ELLIOTT-141.png)
  4. Scan the front and back of each photo and store with the same identifier in a safe place (Dropbox, flickr, etc)
  5. Attach copies of these photos to people in your trees and name these copies in any form you wish (but leave in a reference to the original identifier somewhere)

The reason I suggest that you sort and store first is that generally people have hundreds of photos. The scanning process will take considerable time, and it makes sense to get these photos put into a sane and safe place immediately. You also benefit from establishing the identifier during the organization process so that it is convenient for when you scan each photo.

This also lets you scan and archive in batches, so that you don't need to do it in one batch. Meanwhile, your photos are available in organized books that you can bring with you to visit family should you need for a scheduled family interview.

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  • Thank you for your answer. Storing photos in albums is no option for me at the moment, because I need to establish some kind of sorting first. (Yes, it is that bad: I often can’t identify families.) – lejonet Aug 13 '13 at 8:50
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    That makes sense. I might suggest the use of Post It Sticky Labels. Write the number on a new label, and then stick it on the back of the photo. They use low stick adhesives, so it wouldn't damage your photo for temporary use. Something like this: urbangirl.com/Products/… – Kevin Elliott Aug 13 '13 at 22:43

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