How to Organize Photos: Warning! This Advice May Shock You

by Sally J.

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

Contrary to popular belief, archivists do not keep everything.

Whaaat? 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, but…

Here is the undeniable reality: If historical societies kept every single item that landed on their doorstep….every cancelled check… every unidentified photograph… every duplicate map… there wouldn’t be any room left for new collections. And that won’t work in the long run, will it? Hardly.

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

Does that mean we should toss treasures willy nilly? No! It means if you can’t think of a good reason to keep it, then it needs to go. Sometimes that means go into the trash. Sometimes that means go somewhere else (your kids, for example).

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 last year when I offered photo organizing tips here at The Practical Archivist Blog:

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.

The Problem Gets Bigger Over Time

I’m a mom, so I understand how difficult it can be to part with sentimental treasures like baby pictures, finger paintings, pinch pots and teeny tiny little clothes. But if you refuse to make choices and instead keep everything, you’ll have an uncontrollable mess on your hands. A mess which will only get worse the longer you ignore it.

Harsh Truth: Your grandkids are not going to want all of your vacation slides. I learned this when my husband and I inherited several photo collections from loved ones who passed on. I was happy to keep photos of relatives having fun on vacation, but I certainly didn’t need their photos of the Eiffel Tower.

You can choose to leave them everything or you can make some careful selections now. If you leave it up to the next generation you’ve lost a wonderful opportunity to share your favorites.

Deciding What To Keep

Here are 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.

And if you take a few moments to write down why you love a particular photograph…well, now we’re talking about a real treasure.

Find The Keepers — Even If You Can’t Bear To Throw Anything Away

Sifting through your collection and selecting your most valuable photographs is important, even if you hold onto every last one. You’ll find it much easier to decide what to scan, for example. You’ll also know which photos should be removed from a sticky magnetic album and which ones can stay in that harsh environment.

You can even start flagging photographs for inclusion in your memoirs or family history book.

More on this topic:


Rolf F. Katzenberger May 7, 2008 at 1:06 pm

Hi Sally, I agree that at least paper photographs can pose some difficulties, space-wise.

However, we must keep in mind that future generations will make use of pictures in ways we can hardly imagine today. This might turn many worthless snapshots into valuable data – if they survive.

I’ve blogged a little about this here

Sally J. January 30, 2008 at 3:17 am

Archives students, yay!

@Erin – Good work. Keep the keepers and lose the dreck.

@Alan – I’ll have to add “Appraise and Destroy” to my lectures. Wonder if I can fake a Darth Vader voice?

Of course, you don’t really have to destroy anything. There are plenty of options for items you don’t want to keep yourself. I’m going to have an article about that soon.

Alan A January 28, 2008 at 8:48 pm

When in doubt, throw it out.. I love that one! On my professional archive course we had the simple motto “appraise and destroy.”

Alan A

Erin January 15, 2008 at 12:37 pm

Thanks for this. I’m a student archivist mired in the depths of a crazy appraisal course. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on it and even weeded my own photo collection last weekend in honor of accepting the fact that, in all honesty, you just can’t keep, and dont need, to keep it all.

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