By Lisa A. Flam
Take a survey of your home, and consider all the spots where you have old photos.
Perhaps you’ll find baby pictures in albums in the living room, vacation snaps in tattered envelopes tucked into a bookshelf, milestone moments in old frames, and older relatives’ fading photos in dusty boxes in the basement or attic.
“They’re memories and treasures for us, but they take up a lot of space, and over the years they keep growing,” says Stephanie Sisco, home editor for Real Simple magazine. “When you decide you want to organize these photos, you’re doing yourself a favor, as well as the people who will inherit those from you.”
You can organize your photos and preserve your personal history either digitally, in photo-safe boxes or both ways. And if you discard the originals after going digital, you’ll free up storage space around the house, which is always a good thing.
Getting organized can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re staring down hundreds or thousands of loose, unorganized photos. And reliving memories through photos can take a heavy toll, especially if you’re working on the project during an already emotional time like moving, helping a parent downsize or dealing with an estate.
“It’s one of the most challenging projects that people undertake in their organizational lives because, unless you’re starting from a really organized place, it’s difficult to even know where to begin,” Sisco said.
Prints are the most common photographic item that people have — and have many of — in their homes.
Sisco recommends spending an hour a day going through them. Organize the prints by decade, and then narrow them further by year, or by person or special event like a wedding.
One of the hardest parts is throwing photos away. Sisco advises tossing photos that are blurry, unflattering or duplicates. “You don’t have to feel this obligation to keep them just because they were printed,” she said.
Over time, remember that sunlight and humidity can cause photos to deteriorate. “If they’re exposed to sunlight, each layer of color eventually fades off,” said Toni Greetis, lab manager at Phototronics, an independent camera shop in Winnetka, Illinois.
In basements, photos can be damaged by flooding, humidity, mold and mildew. In attics, heat and humidity can cause problems.
For these reasons, a digital archive is the best way to safely store photos and slides, Greetis said. Having all images on a disk or thumb drive also makes it convenient to find and share images in person and online.
“You can take it with you to Grandma’s house rather than carrying eight boxes filled with photo albums,” Greetis said. “And there’s less risk of damage to a small thumb drive than there is to photo albums or boxes of photos in your basement or attic.”
She recommends getting a duplicate of the drive or disk and keeping it somewhere secure, like in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe.
If you digitize photos, you can scan them into the computer yourself, pay for the service at a camera shop or go through an online company like the one Sisco recommends, www.ScanMyPhotos.com .
At Phototronics, which digitizes photos, slides, VCR tapes and movies recorded in earlier formats, the question of whether to keep the originals after digitizing is a common one. Greetis says it’s a personal choice.
“If you keep them, you actually have the tactile object that you can look at, which has its own nostalgia,” she said. “You can pass those to other family members or just simply to have as the backup if something happens to the digital copies. The downside is it takes up space.”
If you keep the original photo prints, Sisco recommends storing them in clearly marked, archival storage boxes. Greetis recommends placing those acid-free boxes inside a Rubbermaid container to keep out moisture. Store them somewhere dry, dark and cool, like a closet.
Despite the hundreds of photos in basements and attics, albums and boxes, Greetis knows one thing for certain.
“Very few people look at actual photographs these days,” she said. “Everything’s digital.”