Family photos are windows to our past

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Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have come and gone, and many friends and family members posted photos honoring their parents, as did I. As a genealogist, I can tell from the photos people posted just how well they have preserved their photo collections. Some people have 20 clear sharp images of themselves with their father or mother over a range of years. Some people have one blurry old polaroid that could have used a flash bulb!

Also, in recent weeks, a cousin of mine had a fire at their home that started at the neighbors. Fortunately, no one was injured. Also fortunately, the photo collection was not damaged.

Both of these things reminded me of the importance of preserving the family photo collection. Many friends have lost their parents and the photos they have are the reminder of many happy times. Those photos are the easiest, and perhaps the only way, to transfer those memories to the next generation, who might not have been there or even met grandpa.

My step grandfather “Tony D” died when I was two, and I remember him only because he was so loud that it made me cry. I thought he was yelling at me for doing something wrong! Maybe I did. Maybe he was. Who knows?

Anyway, my memory of him was not favorable until I saw the photos from my parents and from other relatives. He was in our basement relaxing in a recliner. He was cooking on the grill. Finally I found a picture of him holding me when I was a few months old. That photo, by itself, changed my memory of Grandpa “D” even though I still remember the loudness, not the tender guy he really was.

So, sentimentality aside, how do we preserve these images of ourselves for future generations, and of our ancestors and relatives who have left us? Let’s first talk about saving the originals from damage, then discuss the ease of preserving and distributing photos in the digital age.

I can’t count how many people I talk to who store their photos in exactly the wrong place. I can understand why it happens. People move from one home to another, box up the photo albums, put the box somewhere out of the way while they unpack the stuff they need, like cooking utensils, clothing etc. We don’t have time to look at old photo albums….there’s unpacking to do!! So the photo albums and the home movies end up either in the attic or in the basement, or maybe even the garage.

It doesn’t take the catastrophe of a house fire to destroy those irreplaceable memories. For most people, it something as inane as rodents getting into the garage and eating their way through your memories. It could also be the twenty year old water heater in the basement that blows and floods the floor where the photo albums are in wet cardboard boxes. If they are in boxes, it does help protect from the sun but not from heat. Those who have photos pasted in albums with sticky pages end up having curled up damaged photos when those pages are reopened.

So my advice is simple and practical. Put the photos inside the house, preferably in an interior room like a closet, ideally a room that is relatively cool and not very humid. The attic is too hot. The basement is usually cooler, but prone to flooding. If you must store them in the basement, keep them well off the floor.

I know I have discussed digitally preserving and organizing photos in past columns, but I will summarize these thoughts again because they bear repeating. There are a number of different types of items to preserve and they each need their own discussion.

Scanning photos is a slow process but it needs to be done. You can certainly avoid scanning every single photo in the collection. Back before digital cameras and phones, you might take three or four photos of the same person, just in case one or more of them did not “come out”. So you end up with four virtually identical photos of the same person taken the same day. Just scan the best one. Saves a little time. Also, that photo of the 1955 Thanksgiving Turkey, perhaps is not something you need to preserve for future generations. The bad blurry images everyone has in their collection may not be worth preserving either. So don’t feel intimidated by the amount of photos you need to scan. You can choose to scan only the most important photos this month, and get back to the lesser ones later. It’s your project, so the timeline is in your hands.

So what do I scan with? Many printers come with a flatbed scanner, so you can use that to scan to a memory card/flash drive. (Don’t feed the photos through any document feeder that may be attached to the scanner. It’s not meant for photo paper.) You can also buy a separate flatbed scanner for around $70 if your printer doesn’t have one.

There are new digital film scanners on the market for about $170 that will scan slides and negatives. They save the results to a memory card or flash drive also. If you have enough slides to justify the expense, I highly recommend getting one.

If you’re lucky to have tintypes or older photos that are not paper, you may need to take them to a professional. I’ll discuss them in a moment.

Home movies are a particular problem. There are VHS tapes, in various sizes (remember the microcassettes and other formats that fit in a cam-corder), plus 8mm and super 8 movies among others. VHS tapes are magnetic and prone to deteriorate under the best of storage conditions. In order to copy these to digital format, you need a working VCR player (best found on ebay or Craigslist) and an analog converter that hooks up to your computer. The VCR has to connect to the analog converter so you can see the content on the computer screen, and so it can save the digital results to your computer hard disk.

There are many companies that convert your VHS tapes and your film to digital. However, if they are not local, you will be shipping your priceless memories to a company hundreds of miles away, which is a huge risk. Obviously if you can find someone local, you can bring the items to them and prevent their loss or destruction during shipping. Please don’t bother to try a quickie home method of projecting the movies and re-filming them with your phone. The quality will be horrible and it isn’t worth trying. If you need to make a trip to deliver your films to a company an hour or two away, store the films in an archival safe box in the mean time. If you absolutely MUST ship the films to a professional company, please get references from friends who already had theirs done and insure/track the shipment. The insurance payout won’t replace the memories but the shipping company will pay closer attention to the package.

When all this is done, and you have a computer drive filled with photos and video, please don’t just call it a day. All hard drives crash. Death, taxes, hard drive crash. Bank on it.

Get some cloud space and back up your memories to the cloud. Pay for storage if you have to. You can set up your cloud to be available on your smartphone so you can show your photos or movies to relatives without having to carry a laptop with you. You can also share the cloud folders with relatives so they can see and experience the memories. This will help assure that the photos will be in someone’s possession for years to come.

Write to Dan at and please put Fra Noi in the subject.


About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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One comment

  1. Diana Fecarotta

    Heartfelt thanks Dan, for your most valuable shared info. I am older and not tech savvy, but with referencing your instructions, may be able to try to do some of it, or find a local location who does. Mille Grazie! Thank u so very much!
    Sincerely, Diana

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