Friday, August 1, 2008

August 1 - Friday From The Collectors



Generally speaking, I'm not the diva type. Except when it’s my birthday. I have invoked the “Queen for a Day Rule” on my birthday since my age could be measured in single digits. So when The Maven invited me to write a guest column for August 1st – my very own birthday - I knew what I had to do.

You might not like everything I have to say, but I hope you'll stick around for the whole thing. Don’t agree with me? That’s totally cool. One of the most important parts of a blog is the comment section. It's the place where you are invited to add your two cents.


If The Maven collected any and all 19th Century photos, she would need an extra house and probably a few more sources of income. But Maven doesn’t have that problem because she has identified a specific collecting area: Women and girls in glasses. Maven’s collection is not an accidental one.


The former head of Visual Materials once forced me to rrrrrip a photo into two pieces. I also had an archives professor who was very fond of the phrase "When in doubt, throw it out!"

Wait a minute! Aren't you archivists the keepers of our shared history? Yes, we are. 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 simply wouldn't be any room left for new collections.

And that won’t work in the long run, will it? Hardly. There are limits to storing family collections, too. Your house is only so big. There are only so many photographs your grandkids will be willing to keep.


When I encourage people to purge their photos, I am *not* talking about ancestor photos. Your oldest and rarest family photos should never, ever be purged. In fact, you should do the opposite. I recommend that you scan them to make extra copies and spread them around.

AGE and SCARCITY always argue in favor of keeping and against purging. It's very unlikely that you have so many ancestor photos that there's enough duplication.


I want you to think about your family photos as two separate collections. The older (smaller) ancestor photos and the more recent (and abundant) modern photos.

Until about WWII, photography was very, very expensive. And the cheaper it became, the more photos we took.

So when I’m talking about photos that should be purged, I’m talking about a few handfuls out of the 12 or more rolls of film you shot on that one family vacation. I’m talking about the last 4 or 5 shots you quickly took just to finish the roll so you could see what was on it.


If you keep everything you'll have an uncontrollable mess on your hands. Your grandkids are not going to want to keep all of your vacation slides. On the other hand, they would probably love to have a handful of photographs of you having fun on vacation. You can choose to leave them everything or you can make some careful selections now.

There is no magic formula for deciding what to keep. At least not one that works for everyone. You have to make some hard decisions, it's true. But making no decisions at all and keeping everything instead is just delaying the problem. Please don't leave the mess for your kids. The bigger the mess, the more tempted future generations will be to just toss it all.


What this phrase really means is: “If you can’t explain why you should keep it, you shouldn’t keep it.”


Let’s say you have a blurry photo, which is a good candidate for purging. But it just so happens to be the only photo you have a certain person. You know you should keep it, but will your grandkids?

There’s a simple solution, of course. Write down why it’s important. Write it in pencil on the back, or use photo corners to put it on a paper page and write a caption underneath it.


I promised Maven some alternatives to purging, so here’s a quick list. I’m sure there are great ideas I’m overlooking, so please share your ideas in the comment section!

1. Share them. This one is obvious but more rewarding than you might realize. Everyone loves getting photos of themselves. If you have a duplicate photo of a family member or a friend, why not sit down, write a letter and send them the extra copy? You could write about your memories of them and tell them why you love them. I think everyone can agree that this is a good thing.

2. Use them in craft projects. Greeting cards are a popular craft these days, and if you’re skilled enough to add some stamping then you’ll have some real treasures on your hands.

Portrait Of The Practical Archivist As A Young Child

That wee lass on her dad's knee? It' (Awww) Is it a good candidate for purging? Maybe. It's pretty beat up, and there's nothing particularly rare or special about the image. There are plenty of other baby photos of me with my dad in our family photo collection. I won't mind if my kids toss it, but I will tell them (and you) why the photo has special meaning for me.

This Polaroid was given to me when I was still in grammar school. Every choice I made about how to display and store it were dead wrong. Seriously. It went into a cheap acrylic frame and onto a shelf that was in direct sunlight most afternoons. It's been handled roughly as you can tell by the scratches and tears. Repairs were made with scotch tape (yikes!).

I love this print like I love my scratchy old K-Tel records. It's a sentimental treasure that I've kept for decades. See the tape on the bottom of my shoes? That's to keep me from wiping out. Again, awwww.

But I also love this print because it tells an important story that all photo collectors need to remember: BAD STORAGE AND ROUGH HANDLING DID NOT DESTROY THIS IMAGE.

Even though it's been damaged, you can still see it. Digital is a different story. If this was burned onto a CD that got scratched and exposed to direct sunlight, there would be no way to translate the 1s and 0s back into a photo of me smiling on my Dad's knee.

There is no middle ground with digital. It's either "Go" or "No go."

Even though it's my birthday and I am officially QUEEN FOR A DAY, I'm not going to sneak in another entire column here at the end. Is anybody still reading? Good! If you want to learn more about digital preservation, join my no-cost mailing list and I'll send you a great eBook as a free thank you gift: "8 Blunders People Make When They Scan Photos...And How To Avoid Them."

You can find the signup box here.

There is no obligation to stay on my list. You can unsubscribe as soon as you get the download link. No hard feelings. Also? I do not rent the list or share it with anyone. (And, yes -- I've had offer$. I turned them down.)

PSSST...Grab your free copy of "8 Blunders" now, because I'm transforming it into a longer piece that'll cost ya real money.

Article & Photographs
Copyright © 2008
Sally Jacobs
The Practical Archivist


Blogger Lisa / Smallest Leaf said...

I'm in! I need all the help I can get to get a handle on my family photo collection. Keep up the pep-rally for practical archiving!

Small-leaved Shamrock
A light that shines again
100 Years in America

August 1, 2008 at 5:15 AM  
Blogger Family Curator said...

Hey Sally...thanks for the lesson in purging. I need to translate it to my entire house, but starting with photos might be a way to get going. Thanks for the inspiration.

August 1, 2008 at 6:37 AM  
Blogger Thomas MacEntee said...

Happy Birthday Sally!

Loved the article - and I know that it was difficult for me to "purge" when cleaning out my Mom's house two years ago. But as an Art History major, I know that many times a collection has to be focused and should have superlative examples rather than several very similar mediocre examples.

August 1, 2008 at 7:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Sally,

For the Tough Love Smackdown on purging.
We used to get two sets of prints everytime from Walgreens. They called it a bargain...

Now we have boxes and albums of contemporary fodder to slog through. Sigh

Oh, and Happy Birthday!

"Guided by the Ancestors"

August 1, 2008 at 9:03 AM  
Blogger Lidian said...

Happy birthday - this is great advice!

August 1, 2008 at 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article! It's good to hear from you. We've missed your great advice.

August 2, 2008 at 2:14 AM  
Blogger Terry Thornton said...

Thanks Sally for the practical advice. I need this pep talk to get me started.

Terry Thornton

August 2, 2008 at 5:04 PM  
Blogger Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

Belated Happy Birthday Sally!

Photos aren't something I'm willing to part with. You're right that my grandkids won't be interested in my vacation pictures so I have them neatly arranged in albums that will be easy for them to toss. They probably won't want all of the pictures in the wedding albums either but I like to reminisce while looking at them. The other family albums? Who knows if they'll be interested in them or not. I have labeled all of the photos in all of the albums so the task of sorting through them when I'm gone will be easier. Hopefully when they're sorting through them, they'll remember the times sitting on my lap, or next to me on the sofa as they got older, and flipping through the pages slowly together.

August 14, 2008 at 5:39 PM  

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