Sunday, March 27, 2011

How to Care for and Identify Family Photographs - workshop highlights

The Kelly Brothers
Paul "D.R" and William
William was my grandfather
circa 1900
On March 26, the Nebraska State Historical Society (NSHS) hosted an encore presentation of Picture Perfect and Beyond - How to Care For and Identify Your Family Photographs. The workshop was held at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln. About 50 people attended the presentation given by Karen Keehr, curator of the visual and audio collection at the NSHS and Kay Cynova, director of interpretation at Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, Nebraska.

This was a day packed full of great information on the care and handling of your personal family photo archives as well as providing hints on how to determine the approximate time frame when a photograph was made.

Karen discussed the history of photographic images. I enjoyed learning a bit more about the process behind daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.

Tintypes (also known as ferrotypes) became popular during the Civil War. Because they were sturdy, these photographs were easy for soldiers to send home and they wouldn't be damanged in the mail. Photographers kept a supply of props on hand to be used in photographs. Karen pointed out that a uniform being worn by a solider may not be an indication of his rank - it may be a costume in the photographer's wardrobe collection.

Not all archival products are created equal.

There are many storage products on the market for your family photograph collection. Karen explained that there is no uniform standard for the use of the word "archival" on a product. She emphasized that storage products should meet the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). She shared different examples of products that should be used to protect your collection.

Always look for acid free, lignin free and unbuffered in archival products.

Best places in the home to store your collection

Perhaps you already know to avoid the following: attics, basements, garages, barns. Under a bed or interior closets are the best locations in your home. It's also important to not save old newspapers with your photographs. Newspapers are very acidic and can damage your photographs.

Labeling and identifying photographs
  1. Write on the back, not on the front.
  2. Write on the edge of the back of the photo.
  3. Always use pencil (loud gasps from everyone in the room at the mention of the word Sharpie!)
  4. A woodless graphite pencil should be used; it will write on coated paper (like modern photographs). Use soft or extra soft.
  5. Print the information; do not use cursive writing style.
  6. Don't use labels; eventually the glue will dry, fall off and leave a yellow stain on the photograph
  7. Photo albums are fine as long as they meet the PAT standard.
If you want to display a historic photograph, get the best copy possible to display and keep the original protected and out of sunlight.

Digitizing Your Collection

Karen emphasized that if you plan to digitize your collection, realize that this is a long term commitment. You will have to keep up with the technology each time the medium changes. For example, computers that will read five inch floppy disks are out of use today.

When scanning photographs, she recommended scanning a master file at 600 - 1200 pixels per inch (ppi). Images should be scanned as an uncompressed .tiff file which will retain all aspects of the scan. Do not alter this master scan. Back these up and store them separately. You can then make low resolution copies at 150 ppi (web and PowerPoint) and 300 ppi for printing. You can make color adjustments and editing on the copies - never on the master scan.

The Ears Have It

When trying to determine if two photographs are of the same person, look at the ears. Karen said that everyone's ears are unique to them and are the best facial feature to use in identifying people in photographs once you have confirmed an image as a specific person.

Backup! Backup! Backup!

Your digital collection must be backed up with duplicate copies stored offsite or via remote web storage ("the cloud").

A summary of Kay's session on identifying the age of a photo will be shared in a separate post.


  1. Great info! Love the hint about the ears and the pencil.

    And loved those bows!

  2. I like the tips as well (scanning and the ears). So glad you went and shared your information with us.

  3. Love the tip on the ears. I have so many unidentified photos.

  4. Thanks for this post. If we don't use labels, are you suggesting writing directly onto the back of the photo -- in the corners with pencil? Often I have a lot of info I want to share about the photo. I've written it on a separate sheet I keep in the same box as the photos -- but could get separated. Are there any labels that would stick--archival type. Or could a pocket be put on the back of a sturdy photo and the info slipped into that? Same glue issue I suppose.

    Right now I have photos grouped into various Ziploc bags, labelled. Any advice about Ziplocs? I'd like to re-organize because the way my parents saved them -- family friends intermixed with our family--doesn't make sense for passing on. A giant album is very bulky--unless there are ones with sleeves that these (many 100 years old and more with cardboard-like sturdy backing) can be slipped into.

  5. Linda - the presenters recommended using acid free photo sleeves - either plastic or paper - that meet the PAT standard. The information about the photo can be written on the sleeve, then place the photograph inside the sleeve.

    I would guess they would recommend against the ziplocs since they are not archival quality nor meet the PAT standard.

  6. Another suggestion the presenters offered was to make a photocopy of the photograph and record the additional information on the photocopy rather than on the original.

  7. thanks for both these suggestions. Then the trick is to be sure the copy and the original are inextricably kept together.