How to Organize Photos Like an Archivist Part 1: Level of Description

by Sally J.

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

Every year around the “Gotta Get Organized!” time of year, I give away one free information product that helps folks just like you organize photo collections. This year, I asked my email list subscribers and readers to tell me about their greatest information need. We narrowed it down to two choices, and “How to Organize Photos Like An Archivist” was the winner.

Level of Description: What Does That Mean?

Most people assume that archival items (like photographic prints, for example) are cataloged individually. One at a time. Item by item. You know, the way books are cataloged individually. Or films. Or Weird Al Yankovic albums.

Here’s the thing: Those are individual works created for a specific purpose.

You can’t treat every memo in a large modern organization’s papers the same way as you treat the final print of a feature film. Imagine creating a title for every single document created by a large union over a 50 year timespan. Or every piece of outgoing and incoming correspondence for a U.S. Senator who served multiple terms. It’s not possible based on current staffing rates.

In my experience, item level description is the exception rather than the rule. Here in the real world, the amount of time it takes to create an item level inventory is much greater than the time it takes to type a list of folder titles. In comparison? The folder (or envelope) level seems utterly do-able. Which is why I’m such a big advocate for it.

Your Options (Other Than Item Level)

Basically, there are three other choices.

Collection level, box level and folder/envelope level. Nowt I’m gonna break it down in more detail for you below with examples. Ready?

Collection Level: This is the absolute minimum level of information to describe the papers of a single person or organization. There are oodles of reasons to organize based on ownership, but since we’re talking about family photo collections I want to keep it as uncomplicated as possible. JUST KNOW THIS: If you keep track of who owned which photographs, you have given yourself a fighting chance to identify the mystery ones.

Even when you’re only describing at the collection level, you can still convey some vitally important information.

  • Anne Lyons Jacobs, 2 Photograph Albums and 3 Boxes of Loose Photographs, ca. 1880-1980 Note: Album 2 is acidic “magnetic” style, photo removal is HIGH PRIORITY.

Box Level: In my book, box level is just a skoonch below minimal acceptable level. It’s a great start, don’t get me wrong. I encourage you create a box level inventory as soon as you inherit someone else’s photographs. Therefore, I’m giving you two examples: One is an example of the kind of records it’s OK to leave at the box level, the other is how you describe it before your organizing project. This box level inventory helps you prioritize your bigger organizing project so you don’t lose your mind.

  • 1 Box Recipe Cards, arranged alphabetically, ca 1940-1970 (1 cardfile box)
  • Mom’s hat box with photos from her high school and college years (19xx-19xx).

Folder level: Me? I like to think of this level as the sweet spot. Totally do-able, but makes finding a specific photo quick and easy. The list doesn’t duplicate the collection, but it points you to the right place.

For example, you could put all the photos from one ancestor’s school years in a single envelope, or perhaps if it’s your own college years, the photos of your graduation weekend might take up an entire envelope or folder.

Don’t know the names of everyone in the photo? Or the names of anyyone? Simply put them in an envelope titled “unknown snapshots, ca. 19xx-19xx” When you put that folder title on a list, it’s under a heading that identifies who owned the photos. It’s hierarchical, which saves you from having to repeat the same information over and over.

Box 1: Anne Lyons Jacobs Photographs

  • Folder 1: Lyons Family Photos, 1880-1910
  • Folder 2: Unknown snapshots, ca. 1900-1920

What About Item Level?

Listen, if you have the time and patience to create an item level inventory for all the photographs in your care, then more power to you. Go for it! But if you have a lot of  unmarked mystery photos, item level description can be like a freight train to crazy town. How can you possibly create a title for each of your unknown photos? There are ways. The Photo Detective is there to help you, of course.

My main argument is this, and I’m putting it in all caps for the scanners, not because I’m yelling or anything…





Got any questions?

Insights regarding your own photo organizing struggles?

Share then in the comments, below…


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