How to Organize Photos: Shocking (?) Archival Advice

by Sally J.

in * How to ORGANIZE Your Photos, Free Articles / Blog

[Re: The “?” in the title: Although it comes as a surprise to many people, this information and advice is not even remotely shocking if you are an archivist. Just sayin. ]

Contrary to popular belief, archivists do not keep everything.


An archivist?

Throwing things out?


I spent more time learning the art of archival appraisal than any other skill while in grad school. And by appraisal, I mean deciding what to keep and what to toss — based on what items have enduring value.

But aren’t archivists the keepers of our shared history?

Yes. It’s true and we take that role very seriously. But there is a bigger picture here, and that is The Big Undeniable Truth:  If historical societies kept every single item that landed on their doorstep….every canceled check… every unidentified photograph… every duplicate map… there wouldn’t be any room left for new collections. None! And you and I both know that won’t work in the long run. Not hardly.

One of my archival professors likes to use this unforgettable rhyme: When in doubt, throw it out.

Does that mean we should be cavalier about tossing historical materials? Heck no. Does it mean you should toss treasures willy nilly? Absolutely not.

Here’s what “When in doubt, throw it out” means:

If you can’t think of a good reason to keep it, it needs to go.

Sometimes that means go into the trash. Sometimes that means go somewhere else (your kids, for example). There are many possibilities. I’m here to tell you that you have no ethical obligation to keep every photo.

Please keep in mind that the older the photo, the more people who share ownership…so those should go to genealogy cousins or a historical society. I wonder if there’s some kind of matching service for genealogy cousins? Leave me a voicemail if you need to find one: 608-616-0058 and I’ll see what I can do. If all else fails, consider Dead Fred.

Too Many Photos Leads to Overwhelm. Overwhelm Kills Motivation.

Are you feeling so overwhelmed by your photos that you can’t get started on your photo organizing project? You are not alone. Here’s what Mary had to say when I first started offering free photo organizing tips:

Sally, this is great – super helpful! All of my photos are in drugstore envelopes, including the ones from my honeymoon…6 years ago. Even some of our wedding photos are still in boxes.

I have avoided the task because it truly never occurred to me that it was okay to throw away my family photographs.

With this new information in hand, the idea of putting together a photo album, etc. sounds like fun because I’ll actually *like* the finished product. Because I was NOT excited about putting together an album of indistinguishable landscapes, people standing in front of things, and people eating.

Deciding What To Keep – Some Helpful Guidelines:

1. Respect Age.

In family collections, age and scarcity tend to go hand in hand. For example, the only known photograph of your great great aunt Rose? Or your grandparents’ wedding? Those are keepers. They are worth the investment of high quality archival photo storage boxes and folders. These are also the ones you should scan first.

2. People Pictures.

When my husband and I were rescuing photos from our grandparents’ magnetic albums, it became obvious that certain photos weren’t worth saving. Generally speaking, what we decided to keep was pictures of our grandparents and other family members. What we skipped was vacation snapshots of mountains and buildings, and unidentified people who were strangers to us. We gave as many as we could to other family members in the hopes that those “orphan photos” could be identified.

3. Sentimental Value.

One of the wonderful things about working with family photo collections (as opposed to working in a historical society) is that sentimental value reigns supreme. Future generations will want to have your favorites.


More on this topic from Sally J. (Practical Archivist):

  1. Level of Description: What it means and how it can keep you from losing your mind as you organize your family history photographs
  2. Deciding What to Toss: This is difficult but NOT impossible
  3. Organizing Photos, What to Keep? Respect Age
  4. Organizing Photos, What to Keep? Respect Scarcity


You have marvelous timing. Click the link above and sign up for my free — no obligation —  Joy of Organizing Photos email course. My mom thinks I’m giving away too much information, but you know what? Try Before You Buy is the only marketing style I’m comfortable with– it’s simple and straightforward, and Win-Win!

Sally J. July 31, 2010 at 8:28 am

Mary, this is a FANTASTIC idea! Thank you for sharing such a perfect example of a non-people photo that can have high value even to future generations. Images of family homes and family businesses (sometimes one in the same building, of course) are just wonderful for telling the family history. On a related note, if it’s not too late you can take these photos today. And by too late I mean the house is gone. ;(

Mary Beth Figgins July 29, 2010 at 7:50 am

I also like to keep pictures of family houses or places that impacted your family. I have a picture of my great-grandparents house closeup and one that shows the neighborhood (the houses were very similar) including the prison at the end of the block. My mother remembered hearing the whistle blowing in the prison. I never realized how close it was until I saw the picture.

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