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How to Organize Old Photos

How many old photos do you have, back from the days before you could just snap them digitally on your phone? And are they tucked away in drawers here and there, and boxes in the attic, and a few in the piano stool, and some in shoe boxes with other memorabilia from that road trip you took in 1994? Learn how to organize old photos before the film degrades.

Old briefcase full of photos with vintage camera

Options for organizing your old photos

Before you can choose the best system for your photos, you’ll need to decide a few things. How do you want to go about this?

Go completely digital

Scan and destroy all your old photos and add them to your existing digital collection. This way, you wouldn’t have to organize the physical copies of your old photos at all.

Go digital, but keep the paper

Scan your old photos, but keep them. In this case, you’ll also need to decide on a way to organize your physical photo storage.

Digital, schmigital

Just organize the physical copies. This is obviously the simplest solution. But physical photographs still degrade over time, no matter how you store them. Scanning ensures you’ll never completely lose the image. Plus, you can email or post your old photos online. You can keep several boxes of photos on a single flash drive, and then you have a backup in case something happens to the physical photograph (and especially the irreplaceable negative). But if you have no use for it right now, skip ahead to the next section.

How to organize old photos

If you’re keeping the physical copies of your old photos, here’s what you need to know. Photos need to be protected from sunlight, damp and other elements. They can do just fine loose in a box or in envelopes for many years. But get one little thing wrong in their environment, and they can start to degrade.

  • Buy some acid free binder sheets designed to hold photos and put them in binders. These pages have pockets to hold photographs and keep them protected.
  • Decide on a logical filing system. If you’ve only got old photos from 5 events that you’re storing, it might make sense to buy five binders and allocate one binder to each event. If you’ve got lots of photos going back years and years, you may want a tabbed system. If you’re making your own binder, you can just add some tabs in between pages. Another option is sticky tabs: you can attach them to any page and write whatever you want on the tab. Your filing system might be by date, by type of event, by who’s in the photos, etc.
  • Store the negatives, too. If you want to keep the negatives in the binder, you can put them in an envelope and tape it inside the back cover of the album. Wherever you decide to put them, they should be kept in a paper envelope of some sort.
  • Make an index. If you want to be able to find one particular photograph out of a collection of hundreds or even thousands, make an index for each album. On it, type or write a description of the photo, the page of the album it’s on, and (optionally) the number it is on that page. If you want to be even more thorough, put a number beside each photo that correlates with the number it was on the negatives. This makes it easy to find a single photo quickly, and have it developed again from the negative.

The index is the real beauty of the system. You can include detailed descriptions of each photo so whoever inherits them will always be able to tell who was in them and where they were and what they were doing. This can be a terrific way to preserve family history as well as archive your old photos.

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