Approaching the family photo bin


1991. All I want for Christmas is preservation.

Home for Christmas and bored – there’s really only one thing to do- drag that huge bin of photographs out of the closet and get to archiving!

Assessing the situation. This photo bin has been around for as long as I can remember. I’d pick through it from time to time, and when I was in college I even scanned several photos I found for a Facebook album, but it was always an intimidating mess that I physically had never seen the bottom of.

This Christmas I went through the 900 or so photographs. The majority of photos were loose or in one hour photo lab envelopes that contained (1) MANY paper advertisements (2) a plastic ‘Memories’ envelope with photos on one side and negatives on the other.

Pictures developed in the 2000s usually had duplicates, half of the envelopes maintained an original order, and it quickly became clear that the ’94 dates on many of the photographs were wrong- probably due to erroneous settings on our digital camera.


Water damage

Stabilizing. 20 photographs had water damage that seems to have occurred before they were stored in the bin, so I separated them out for scanning. I also separated loose negatives from prints and put them in plastic sleeves if  they were available and threw out all of the photo lab envelopes b/c they had glue seam enclosures in rapid states of deterioration. I also threw out the advertisements because they really impeded access.

Pet dander was a huge issue, and I wish I’d had a small brush or something to clean particularly bad photos. If patrons regularly bring in photos as bad as mine into the Memory Lab we’re going to need a lot more cleaning supplies in reserve.

Order. I set out four boxes on our dining room table- one for photos pre-1990, then the 90s, then the 2000s (not surprisingly, post 2010 are mostly digital), and one for negatives. I went through all of the photos rapid-fire at the item level, pulling out anything before I was born for my mom to help contextualize, identify, or date.

When my mother got home from work and we were ready to start sorting,  I gave us each an empty photo album for separating high-interest photographs that we came across. She found about as many that she wanted to throw away, either because they were duplicates or because the person(s) in the photograph no longer meant anything to her. There were also several greeting cards and letters in the bin for her, but the only ones she wanted to keep were the hand-written Mother’s Day cards from my brother and I.

Storing. We returned the boxes to their original storage space in our living room closet because it’s temperature controlled and safe from light and leaks.

Next Christmas. The entire process took around 5 hours and I was emotionally exhausted by the end. Now that the photos have an approachable level of organization, the next step is to write descriptions on the back of all photographs and to scan the water-damaged ones. I estimate each decade box will take several hours to complete, so the plan is to do one (perhaps even with paper sleeving if we’re really ambitious) every time the family gets together for Christmas over the next couple of years.


Scuffs and scratches

Lessons for the Memory Lab. Because going through physical photographs is time consuming, dirty, and requires a lot of physical space, this really needs to be something that’s done before patrons book a Memory Lab session for scanning. I need to be sure that in the lab’s documentation we encourage people to do the work of pre-selection in their homes first.

Just from scanning a couple for this post, I noticed scratches and marks that I didn’t see when sorting. Is sending a patron to a creative computer for post-processing really necessary for a couple of touch-ups? Are their any tools to do this kind of work quickly for one-offs?







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