How to Organize Photos Like an Archivist, Part 2: Three Examples of Minimal Level Description (Box & Folder Level)

by Sally J.

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

In my last post, I argued that item level description can be like accidentally ending up on a freight train to crazytown –  especially if your family archive is BIG and it includes boxes n’ boxes n’ boxes of historic treasures. This is also true if you’ve been left with an alarming number of unidentified photos.

Can’t remember my argument against item level description? It’s OK. Lucky for us we’re on the internet which means you can go to it right now via the handy dandy link below.

Organize Photos Like an Archivist, Part 1: Levels of Description

 

Examples of “Minimal Description” Box & Folder Level

Before we get into the nitty gritty of item level description, let’s take a look at what I mean when I say “box level” and “folder level” –

Example One:

The guide to the Angela Davis Trial uses box level to describe the trial transcripts, and folder level to describe the letters of correspondence. You can do this with your family collection, too. Or even your research files. The key is to describe it at the highest level that allows you to access the items you need.

Box 1    Trial transcript, Jan 10 1972 – March 17 1972
Box 2    Trial transcript, March 27 1972 – April 27 1972
Box 3    Trial transcript, May 1 1972 – June 1 1972 [Note: Cassette tapes]
Box 4 / Folder 1    Trial notes 3 small notepads and ca. 100 3×5 typed cards.
Box 4 / Folder 2    Correspondence (Miscellaneous to Mrs. Timothy)
Box 4 / Folder 3    Correspondence – Hate mail

Example Two:

The William Boss finding aid describes the contents of a box without using folder numbers. They still give the number of folders for each  sub-series, which is nice because it gives you information about how much there is on that particular topic. Archivists and librarians call that extent. Numbering the folders does the same thing, of course.

Location Box
144.J.3.1B 9 Inventory and Sales Record Book, 1902.
Correspondence and Miscellaneous Materials, undated and 1930-1979.
Designs, undated.
Minutes, Sales Reports, Balance Sheets, and Other Financial and Administrative Records, 1956-1983. 10 folders.
Financial Statements, 1958, 1960, 1963-1980. 2 folders.


Example Three:

The finding aid for the J.T. Johnson papers has an entire sub-series with exactly the sorts of photographs you’re likely to have in your collection of ancestor photos. Take a look a this list and reassure yourself that your project is totally do-able. Don’t overcomplicate things. If you don’t know what it is, just describe what you see.

Pay attention to how this kind of description gives you lots of information about the photographs WITHOUT identifying every single date, location and person.

You should create this kind of a list before you get into the details of each individual photograph (like location, date and names). More importantly, create this list before you start scanning.

Do I have your full attention? Good. :) Here’s the JT Johnson finding aid:

JT Johnson Papers

Series 1: Photographs, 1880s-1950s

Subseries 1A: Photographs: Personal and Family, 1880s-1950s

Scope and Content
J. T. Johnson’s personal and family photographs include studio portraits and snapshots from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. Multiple photographic formats and styles are represented including tintypes, albumen prints and cyanotypes. The majority of photographs are unidentified.
Box 1 / Folder 1
Photographs: Portraits of J. T. Johnson, 1880s-early 1900s
Box 1 / Folder 2
Photographs: Portraits of J. T. Johnson, 1910s-1950s
Box 1 / Folder 3
Photographs: Family portraits; tintypes, mid-19th century
Box 1 / Folder 4
Photographs: Family portraits taken in studios in Illinois, late 19th century
Box 1 / Folder 5
Photographs: Family portraits taken in studios in Indiana, late 19th century
Box 1 / Folder 6
Photographs: Family portraits taken in studios in Kansas, late 19th century
Box 1 / Folder 7
Photographs: Family portraits, late 19th-early 20th century
Box 1 / Folder 8
Photographs: Family portraits, late 19th-early 20th century
Box 1 / Folder 9
Photographs album: Family snapshots including cyanotypes and albumen prints, late 19th century
Box 1 / Folder 10
Photographs: Family snapshots; cyanotypes, late 19th century
Box 1 / Folder 11
Photographs: Family snapshots: J. T. Johnson and new automobile, 1910s
Box 1 / Folder 12
Photographs: Family snapshots; boys running in a foot race (possibly Johnson’s son, Haskett), 1910s
Box 1 / Folder 13
Photographs: Family snapshots; J. T. Johnson’s son Haskett, many taken in front of their house at 607 E. Main Street, Kent, 1910s-1920s
Box 1 / Folder 14
Photographs and negatives: Family snapshots, 1900s-1920s
Box 1 / Folder 15
Photographs: Snapshots of a man suspended in the air from the IOOF building, downtown Kent (?), 1920s

What the heck does “Scope and Content” mean?

Scope notes are created by the processing archivist to describe the entire collection, or series, or subseries.  You can create a scope note for any one of these levels.

Here’s a scope note that describes an entire box of items. Look it over and tell me if I’m a liar for thinking this is something you can totally do (dates are great if you know them, circa dates work, but don’t stop to figure out dates at this point):

Scope and Content
J. T. Johnson’s personal and family photographs include studio portraits and snapshots from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. Multiple photographic formats and styles are represented including tintypes, albumen prints and cyanotypes. The majority of photographs are unidentified.

So.

This is what I’m saying to you:

Save yourself a lot of headaches by starting your photo organizing project with the box level in mind.

 

But even I acknowledge that, sometimes?

Item Level Is OK.

I don’t want you to think that item level is never allowed, or that it’s always a waste of your time. Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate.

What I really want is for you to realistically assess how much time you can put into your family photo project.

That means actually calculating how many hours you have available and blocking it out on your calendar like a class or a standing lunch date.

Concentrate this scheduled time on the exact projects that will give you the maximum payoff with the least effort. It’s a great idea to block out big chunks of time in a short period whenever possible. Consider it insurance against the curse of the half finished organizing project.

The quicker and more efficiently you move it forward, the better you’ll leave it even if you have to bail when it’s half done. Box list first. Then the nitty gritty.

You won’t regret it.

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Kid art is awesome, isn’t it? Just like photographs, my advice is to ditch the clutter and treat the keepers right. How does that work? Click here to learn more about my new School Days Time Capsule, available for a short time only. You also get to see some of my kids’ artwork. Yay!

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