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Organizing Your Paper Photos

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
3 min read

If you were alive before the 2005ish, you probably have boxes of old prints and negatives rotting away in a basement or a closet. You've been meaning to organize it, but the project seems overwhelming.

Believe me, I've been there.

I've had to organize my own photos and the photos of my family going back to 1914. Thousands of photos in no order whatsoever.

I'm sharing the lessons I've learned, so you can avoid some of the mistakes I made, and possibly save some money along the way.

I'm not an archivist. There's plenty of sites that will suck you down that rabbit hole with glee. I just wanted the fastest, easiest way to preserve my family's photographic history.

After completing this process, you will have a set of organized prints that will be far easier to scan and refer to in the future.

Step 1: Write on the Backs of the Photos

Write on the back of each of my photos to give it context: who, what, where and when (why is a bonus). I use an archive safe pen or soft pencil to write lightly so it doesn't disturb the other side of the print.

I don't write on older prints. I let relatives tell me the context and facts of each print on notes that tie back to print somehow (through numbering or as notes within the binders mentioned in the next step). This is crucial for scanning and publishing. Get all the facts you can before people forget.

Step 2: Sleeves and Binders

Transfer all prints to non-PVC binders with non-PVC plastic sheets (top loading only - trust me). Some people swear by using acid-free envelopes and boxes. I've done that. Binders are better. Here's why:

  1. Binders are less expensive overall.
  2. Binders can hold any size/format photos, negatives and slides a normal person has (I'm not normal, so I do have 1 giant box to house poster-sized prints).
  3. Binders offer the most individual print protection.
  4. The prints can be looked at by anyone at anytime without damaging them further.
  5. It takes up much less space. An entire shoebox of photos can fit in a small binder. 2 boxes in a large.
  6. recommends it as the "perfect" solution for home storage.
  7. It's safer for future generations who will thumb through everything.
  8. There's the ability (if needed) to view both sides of the old photos without manhandling them all. Some of my ancestor's photos have fountain pen writing on the back. Seeing both sides is a difficult problem in digital, but easy in these binders.
  9. Sleeves offer separation from close, decaying photos from the same time period.
  10. Blinders offer much easier separation of subjects/years.
  11. There's more room for writing and non-photographic items that may have accompanied the prints. I love collecting old photo processing envelopes.
  12. I get to keep my grimy hands off the photos which makes me feel better about the whole process.
  13. After the prints are in sleeves, they can be organized into any context I want. Bookmarks or notes can be added to the binders to show where scanning left off and notes about how you scanned them (so future generations can understand the care you took and that they probably won't need to duplicate your work).

I have to face the fact that I will not be forever in charge of these photos. To give them the best possible shot of lasting a long time and not being too damaged, they need individual protection in sleeves and binders.

Step 3: Scan

If you're doing this yourself, it can take forever, but the quality and the context will be better. Having organized the prints above, it's much easier now to know what you've scanned and in what context (by year, by subject, etc.).

I scan prints at 600dpi, using a few different scanners depending on the type of print.

Step 4: Publish

Ultimately, you'll want to create photo books. I love what this blogger has done. You'll have to compare services, but some swear by Apple books and Blurb. It's not cheap, but it's better for your family to see the writing and the photos together in a place where they can't harm the actual prints.

It's also a much more fun way to experience family photos than flipping through binders or pawing through boxes and envelopes.

After your book is printed, preserve a copy in print and digital in case of fire or flood.

Step 5: Create

Now it's time to get back to your own story.