We were recently arranging for the remaining items in an apartment to be sent to an estate sale. The family had been through the apartment, collecting all the mementos, treasures, heirlooms and paperwork they wanted and what was left was a collection of furniture, accessories and the everyday things we need, use and have in our lives. After cleaning out all the items that shouldn't go to the sale (food, papers, etc.) we were checking everything to ensure that nothing had been missed, I opened a drawer in a chest in the bedroom and was surprised to discover a cache of old photos. We quickly called one of the family members to alert them to our find and get some direction. The family member told us that they had gotten all the photos they wanted and that these could be discarded. It was an easy job physically but more difficult emotionally. It's not often that I get caught up personally in this type of work, after all we help people get rid of things all the time with positive results. In this case though, I got caught up in the nostalgia that photos evoke, and these weren't in any way connected to my family.
If I had to guess, the family in this situation, already grieving their loss, came upon a huge stash of old photos. Overwhelmed by the thought of going through them in detail (in addition to sorting through the entire contents of the apartment) they saved what seemed pat important in the moment and left the rest for another day … which never came.
So, what’s the takeaway here? It's time to tackle those boxes of old photos. Looking for some motivation to get started? Think of it as a gift, one your family will enjoy for years (and generations) to come. You have the opportunity to give them the gift of warm memories instead of the stress and foreboding that accompany the dreaded box(es) of unsorted, unidentified photos.
Where to begin?
Start by pulling all your printed photos together (digital images are a separate topic that we’ll cover later). Make sure you have lots of room to spread out.
Review every photo. Purge all duplicates, blurry images and bad photos. Believe it or not, most people are able to edit out 70% of their photos based on these categories! You don't have to get rid of them right away if you're not ready, just set them aside in a box so you only have to deal with a much smaller number of photos. Within the next week or so, review this box, pull anything you've changed you mind about, then trash what remains in the box.
Take the remaining “good” photos and organize. There are two ways to organize, chronologically (by time) and by theme (travel, celebrations, etc.). neither is better, it's just a personal preference.
Once you've gotten them organized, note on the back of the photo whatever basic info you know … ideally the who, where, when. This is an important step, if not for you, for everyone else that will look at these pictures in the future.
This step is optional but highly recommended … Digitize your collection. You can scan them yourself of have it done professionally. Reason #1 – Security. Lots of things can happen to photos (fire, floods, loss, etc.), this way you’ll have the ability to reproduce what might be lost or damaged. Reason #2 – Sharing. With digital copies of your images you can share them with everyone. No need to decide “who gets what”, everyone can get everything!
Figure out how you want to store what you've organized. The “best” way is in a set of matching albums that you can display and pass down. Depending on how much you're willing to spend, there are tons of alternatives. Look for albums that allow for different sized photos and allow you to put labels or write beside the image. Try not to select trendy and/or cute albums, you’ll want these to stand the test of time and be something you and your family can be proud to display and look at for years to come. Now, that doesn't mean they have to be boring, there are lots of beautiful alternatives out there. Buy more than you need and leave space in every album so that you (or someone who ends up with these albums can add to them. If not albums, invest in archival boxes that allow you to keep things organized however you decided (by time or theme).
Now that you’ve created this gift, show it off. Keep the albums and or boxes in a climate controlled place (no attics or garages) and accessible so you can share them with family and friends.
Although a bit of time and money, there is nothing more valuable than memories. Transforming a cluttered mess of photos into a rich family history is a gift that keeps on giving!