Organizing Photo Collections

Organizing Photo Collections

You've got questions about discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history; our experts have the answers.

Q: I have a question regarding the organization of photographs. A while ago, I read Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s book Organizing Your Family History Search and pretty much followed her suggestions for organizing documents. However, I feel that photographs need to be addressed separately, mainly because I cannot copy/print them as easily as document sources (and isn’t it true that you should only work with copies, not with the sometimes fragile originals?). I am thinking of organizing my pictures digitally, but am unsure which software program does what exactly for my purposes. Also, how do I keep track of the originals? What is the best, most efficient and safest way to store the originals, etc.?

A: You ask two very good questions. By all means start working with your original photos.

First, organizing original photographs requires a pair of white cotton gloves (for handling the pictures), a soft lead pencil (for writing identifications on the back) and some acid and lignin-free storage materials (available from archival suppliers). Keep in mind that you need to find a proper storage place for the images such as a windowless closet away from heat sources and water pipes. As far as arranging the originals, I prefer a simple system that uses the person’s surname followed by first name in alphabetical order. Regardless of whether you use a computer program or not, it is still a good idea to take care of the originals because they are irreplaceable.

There are so many ways to organize your images using a computer. You can use a word processing program to create an index to your filing system of originals (very helpful with group portraits). You may also want to use a database program to “catalog” your images using information and pictures. There are several special programs on the market for organizing images, but before purchasing anything, read reviews and ask fellow users about them via a message board such as Ultimately it all depends on how sophisticated you want to get, your level of expertise and what you want to spend on a program.

If you are looking for more specifics, take a look at my new book, Preserving Your Family Photographs, which has several chapters that will interest you including one on organizing photographs.

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