I’m often asked what to do with printed photos to save them for future generations. Here are the 6 most important steps to take to preserve them long term.
In 2002, my husband, myself, and 12-year old Robyn, relocated from California to New Mexico. We had ample time to prepare for the move, and we were able to put much in storage to make our home more appealing to potential buyers. Among the items packed were numerous books and family scrapbooks that chronicled our lives since our wedding in 1981.
Upon arrival in New Mexico, we faced delays in closing the mortgage on our new home. Fortunately, the sellers permitted the moving truck to unload and store our belongings in the garage. Our former house’s contents filled the space, with boxes reaching the ceiling.
Eventually the mortgage closed, and we began the task of moving in and arranging furniture. By the time we got to the boxes of scrapbooks, nearly a year had passed since we had packed them. In the following weeks, Robyn devoted hours each day to exploring the them, absorbing the stories I had written alongside the photos.
One day, Robyn opened her baby album which detailed her difficult birth. She was fine, but my autoimmune blood disorder came out of remission. My condition had required critical care and hospitalization within her first few weeks of life. The emotional, hand-written account filled one and a half 12×12 lined pages.
After reading the story, Robyn looked at me with wide eyes and said, “Wow. I had no idea you went through so much for me.” Hugging her, I assured her that every moment had been worth it.
Telling Family Stories is Important
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to preserving family photos, that simply isn’t always true. Family photos without the stories become meaningless within a generation or two.
Family photos with stories have been shown to build resilience and create a sense of continuity in children. They create a framework to not only celebrate joyful experiences, but also to understand painful ones.
In this article I will walk you through the steps to preserve your printed photos and their stories for the long term. Your children may be grown, but future generations of children will be able to benefit from this important work, as will you.
1. Create a Curated Collection
If you saved one photo per month from your own birth until you were 80 years old, that would be ~1000 photos. That’s enough to fill a standard-sized shoebox.
You likely have 30 years of printed photos or more, especially if you inherited any from previous generations. Probably a bit more than one shoebox.
A printed photo collection is most meaningful when it is curated. According to Merriam Webster, to curate your photos means to carefully choose, thoughtfully organize, and present the collection.
But before you can curate the collection, you may need to do some preliminary sorting and organizing of the photos. This will cut the collection in size and make the curating job more manageable.
When curating, you want to focus on photos that have both personal and historical significance. For example, you may have 20 or 30 photos of Mount Rushmore from that vacation you took when the kids were young. But the ones with family members in them will mean the most to future generations. If they want to see a good picture of Mount Rushmore someday, they can easily find it on the internet.
And historical significance may not always mean public significance. Photos of your first car, first house, the city where you lived, milestone events that you attended or participated in will have historical significance to future generations, as well.
2. Convert Photos to Digital for Safe Keeping
Yes, this is an article on what to do with printed photos. And I believe and teach that printed photos should be digitized in order to have a backup. I teach the 3-2-1 backup strategy for your digital photos, and I believe your printed photos should have the same protection.
Although printed photos can last 100 years or more when properly stored, they are made of paper. And they are likely the only copies you have (especially after you pass off all the duplicates to other family members). They are vulnerable to fire, water, sticky fingers, sneezes, dogs and more (ask me how I know about dogs…).
How to Digitize Your Photos
You have three choices when deciding to scan your photos for safekeeping:
A. Scan The Photos Yourself
This is the most cost-effective and time-consuming way to do it. You will need a good scanner that can scan photos at 600 dpi. Most of today’s scanners can handle this.
Many people have flat-bed scanners in their home, but this is a slow and tedious process that is hard on your body. I recommend a high-speed feed scanner for photos in good condition up to 8×10. What it costs in money will save you more than that in time, and you can resell it when you’re done.
You may also need a new, high-quality external hard drive. I list my favorite hard drives and scanners, as well as other tools, on my Photo Organizing Tool Kit Page.
B. Use a Reputable Photo Scanning Service
I personally use and recommend Forever. They use the latest technological innovations available, and they are constantly improving their processes and equipment. Every order is triple-checked and any one of those checkers can send it back to be redone.
Here’s How It Works
You purchase a box which is a pre-purchase for a certain number of “items” to be digitized, depending on the size of the box. An “item” could be one videotape or film reel, 25 photos or slides, or around 7 double-sided album or scrapbook pages.
You will also choose how you want to receive your digitized memories. Choose by free download, in a paid Forever storage account, or on a thumb drive.
The tracked box is delivered to you via FedEx. Once you receive it, follow the instructions for applying bar codes, packing it up and double boxing it. If you have more items than you pre-paid for, that’s OK. As long as they fit you may include them and you’ll be billed for the extra when the box is received.
Your order is tracked from beginning to end. You’ll receive emails at every point in the process. You can also track your order in real time on their website. Once your order is digitized, your original items will be shipped back to you.
C. Hire Me or Another Professional Photo Manager
Hiring a professional photo manager to scan your photos can give you some additional benefits. This is likely the most expensive option, and also the one with the most customized results.
He or she can relabel your photos, organize them and even add metadata (the who, what, where, when and why). This will make it easy for you to find any photo in the collection quickly and easily. They can also help you integrate your digital photos into this collection. This will give you a complete digital photo hub with all your photos, videos, documents and more. And they can help ensure that you have adequate backups in place.
If this is something you are interested in exploring you can contact me or find a certified photo manager in your area.
3. Archival Photo Storage Ideas
It is important to use archival-quality products for long-term storage. Whether you want to store the printed photos in boxes, put them in albums, or even scrapbook them, this will ensure that your photos will last for years.
You are not likely to find many, if any, products of this quality in your local hobby store. I recommend purchasing them from a quality source. My favorite is Archival Methods. They have everything you might need. And if you need help deciding, give them a call. They are so helpful!
If you are planning to scrapbook your photos, again, I do not recommend buying supplies from your local hobby store or Amazon. Buy from a reputable source such as Creative Memories.
4. Safely Label Photos
It is always a good idea to label photos in case they ever get separated from the collection. But what you use to label them matters.
A #2 pencil is photo safe. However, you do need to be careful not to push too hard so that the photo isn’t damaged from the back side. One way to prevent this is to write only near the edges.
You can also use a Stabilo pencil. This wax-based pencil is also photo safe and doesn’t cause any damage even if you push hard.
Pigment pens are also photo safe, if you must use a pen. Never use a ball-point pen or other pen with unknown ink quality as chemicals in the ink can negatively affect your photos over time. Pigment pens are also the best to use in scrapbooking.
5. Tell the Stories
Having the stories with the photos is what will ensure future generations will find your collection as meaningful as you do.
If you are scrapbooking, make sure to include the stories in the scrapbook. However, if you are storing the photos in boxes or albums, invest in archival-quality index cards or paper you can cut to size. Archival Methods sells both. Use photo-safe writing implements to record the stories. These can then be slipped behind photos in boxes or in album pockets.
Make sure to get all 5 Ws in your stories: who, what, where, when, and why. And sometimes there’s a story that isn’t shown in the photo, but is still relevant. Something that happened just before, or just after, or is the reason the photo was taken.
For example, I don’t have a picture of the dog eating the Gingerbread House in the middle of the night. Robyn had made it by herself when she was 4 years old. But I do have a picture of the destruction he left behind. And then my husband told Robyn how Rudolph had slipped down the chimney behind Santa and had eaten her tasty hard work.
Just this picture of the Gingerbread house would not be meaningful to future generations. But the story makes it come alive.
6. The Best Places to Store Photos
Photos like to live in the same places humans do – climate controlled spaces. They are not fond of garages, basements, attics, barns, or any other place where they might get too hot, cold, moist, or dried out.
In fact, the safest place is likely a top shelf in a closet with a door to keep out light. Stored this way, photos can easily last 100 years or more.
However, that’s not the best way to enjoy your photos. Use your digital copies to create prints to frame, or create canvas or other displays. Photos stored in the light, such as framed photos, start to show damage after several years, depending on how much light exposure they get. This is why you want to make a copy for that purpose.
You can also use your digital copies to create photo books and other items to keep in your living spaces. This way you can still enjoy your photos and stories while also preserving them for future generations.
Now You Know What to Do With Printed Photos
I gave you the 6 steps for what to do with printed photos. But it’s not a task you can get done in an afternoon. I invite you to join The Family Photo Keeper Community to continue getting tips and techniques, as well as encouragement, for this important project.
I’ll also send you my free “Getting Started Checklist” which tells you what you need to do BEFORE you do these 6 steps. I never share your information and you can unsubscribe at any time.