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

by Sally J.

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

Background: I asked my email list subscribers and readers to tell me about their greatest information need with regard to family photos. There were lots of choices, but two rose to the top. Of the two, “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…

Linda Gartz February 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Boy, You’d have a field day with my stuff. We pretty much follow this system: macro-micro, but there’s so much micro!
I have 25 bankers’ boxes (well one’s now a flat photo box of over-sized photos) of all the family memorabilia dating back 100 years. So just as a sample: one box, labelled “Romanian Correspondence” has scores of letters that had to be a) deciphered from old German cursive b) translated from now readable German to English; kept track of by who wrote, when, to whom, if scanned, if stored, etc (many names were unreadable). you can see some of the results on my blog. The photos: most photos were well labeled (I come from a family–both sides–of compulsive women), & are organized in a variety of ways: the oldest ones I have scanned (I put a sticky note on each one noting it was scanned) and have the scans filed in my computer. I have an excel spreadsheet saying the MACRO of what’s in each box: e.g “correspondence,” but to note WHO wrote and what — with over 100 letters — that’s in a separate (complicated-to-make) spreadsheet too. That’s just one part of ONE box. I don’t think anyone in my family (no biological children anywhere among my brothers and me) will care once I’m gone, so I have to find a good home for this stuff. But meantime, I feel the master list of the micro is still lacking. I have a master list of the photos in the “old photo box” I have a master list of all the photos in my mom’s “young years” album, but there isn’t one place that ties these micro lists together. I put the micro lists in the bankers’ box and in a separate file with the macro Excel sheet. I hope to write a family history/memoir, so I keep pix of my Dad’s traveling job because I want to access some of the pix of my him, e.g., in Texas, to describe his experiences there, as he relates in his diary. Do I have enough stuff? Am I nuts yet?

Karen February 8, 2011 at 10:46 am

I used to use Windows’ mass file renaming system, which works for less scientific purposes. You click the first of the series, hold the shift key and click the last, then right click in your selection and rename with something general, like “STEWART.2010″ and it will automatically do a sequence like “STEWART.2010 (1).jpg” etc.

Karen February 8, 2011 at 10:42 am

I just had this conversation with a friend who used to run a museum. He told me about Registrars not letting anything across the loading dock without a museum registry number. I like your idea of getting the boxes or folders done first, I agree with that.

Recently I’ve started cataloging with a system kind of marrying the two. I start with the fact: Is it in my posession, family, distant family, or a public document? When did I happen upon it? What family line does it deal with? How many items will I have with this ‘session’? and finally what kind of item is it? Document? Photo? Artifact? is it a photocopy?

Sounds like a lot, but wait, here’s how I deal with it in my master spreadsheet.


The A tells me it’s mine. This was scanned with my mother in June of 99, it’s from her mother’s line, it’s a photocopy of a death certificate, and I scanned over 20 items that day. This number alone tells me a lot. I don’t have to fuss with anything else, but I do because that’s me. If this was something emailed to me by a 7th cousin, I would number the file like this:


I’ve decided what the codes will be for my family lines, there are less than 10, of course. Before long, I’ve memorized what the numbers mean, and I can tell you from a list if it’s something I can show you physically, or if the scan is as good as it’s gonna get.

Elyse Doerflinger February 6, 2011 at 3:22 pm

This comes at such a great time as I try to scan everything!

Nancy February 3, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Thanks for these suggestions. So, for example, my mother’s photo album is in a digital file (or folder?) with her name + “photo album.” All images stay there, but if I am able to identify individuals, I can add their names in tags and/or add their names to the file name for the individual photo. Is that the idea? It’s all such a big job, especially when there’s more than one album. Thanks again.

Michelle Goodrum February 3, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you! This will help me not only with my photos but with the dozens of family documents in the Archival Closet.

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