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From Mystery to History: The Power of Adding Details to Your Photo Collection


When was the last time you poured over your family pictures? Have you stopped to consider how they will look to future generations? Obviously, you want them stored so they last until at least the next generation. But have you also considered what the next generation needs to inherit and caretaker them?

I've spent some time this year scanning and sharing printed photos online via family tree and cloud storage websites. But there's one other step we need to consider as we protect and share those images. Who is in that picture?

Who is that?

I've been labeling a lot of family photos lately. As a family historian, some images are easy for me to label. I know who those family members are and I easily recognize them. But I've also run into some problems. There are photos of family members that I know are family members, I know what side of the family they are from, and I even know they are siblings of a direct ancestor, but for the life of me, I can't remember their names. In some cases I have problems identifying people in images if they look "different" from what I remember.

As family historians, we know the difficulty in identifying inherited photos. But have you considered the photos of your immediate family? Now is the time to label those photos your family has posed for or had taken. Sure, you know that photo is of you and your mother, but as you consider a child, grandchild, or other family member inheriting those photos, they won't have the same frame of reference that you do. Those photos may be in danger of being discarded if no one can identify the people in the picture.

Start today. Identify those printed photos. Write what you know on the back of the photo. Use a soft lead pencil on older photos like cabinet cards that are mounted on cardboard. Don't use a hard lead pencil, which can indent. For newer photos, use a waterproof, photo-safe archival pen or marker. Don't use ballpoint pens because they will cause you to create indentations in your photo. They can also smudge.

What information should you label your photographs with? At the very least, identify the people in the picture. Make sure to use their names and not something like "grandma" or "dad." That won't help family members in the future since they don't know who labeled the photograph. Depending on what the image is of, consider information such as:

  • Date: To help place the photograph in a year range or specific date. It can also help to understand who is in the photograph
  • Location: Even if it's in front of someone's house, identify who's house and the address
  • Event: Why was the photo taken? Was it for Thanksgiving or other holiday celebration? Was it at a funeral or a wedding? Was it just an annual school photo (what grade/what year/what school?) Providing a little context will help descendants understand the image better.

Depending on the size of the printed picture, you might be limited to what can be included. Include what you can, the most important being identifying people.

To learn more about preserving and sharing family photographs, visit the Legacy Webinar Library category Photos and Digital Images.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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