As I prepare for a cross-country road trip that will result in my bringing home a carload of family photos and memorabilia, I am reflecting on the amount of stuff that can be accumulated in a lifetime. One category of “stuff” is photos.
On the surface, dealing with an abundance of photos may seem seductively simple, but if one ponders for more than a fleeting moment, it will become apparent that dealing with a collection of family photos can be complex.
Consider that there can be many attributes of the photos we may inherit. For example, we may have a few extremely sentimental or one-of-a-kind photos, or possibly many duplicate photos of the same event. Our photos may run the gamut of completely labeled and identified to a complete mystery. We may have some photos that offer no sentimental attachment because they depict scenery or strangers.
So, what do we do with all these photos?
Today I am going to focus on the photos that we have determined we wish to part with. Maybe we cannot physically store all of them or maybe they imbue little value to us personally. Perhaps we have already digitized these photos so that—just in case, by stroke of luck—we are able to later identify them or place them into their proper historical context. The burning question becomes, “What do I do with the physical originals?”
There are several viable options that may vary based upon how much information is known about the subject matter and provenance of the photos, and how much time you are willing to spend readying the photos for transfer. Any of these options are better than discarding the original heritage photographs.
First, ask yourself these questions and consider the implications of your answers:
- Would someone else enjoy or benefit from having these photos, either due to sentimental or historical value?
- Am I able to facilitate transfer to the interested individuals or organizations?
- How much time or expense am I willing to put into organizing or packaging the photos to be transferred?
- Are the identities known for all or some of the people in the photos?
- Is a photographer’s stamp present that is personally identifiable to a specific town or studio?
- If the identities are unknown, can the collection be tied to a particular city or location?
- Can the likely provenance of the photos be identified if the collection was handed down from a particular family or ancestor?
- Do the photos depict relics, costumes, or occupations of yesteryear that would be interesting representations of an era, even if identities and locations are unknown?
- If the people or places of the photos can’t be identified, does the photo depict something unique that would create nostalgic value?
- Are the photos in generally good condition, or are there problems or special handling issues like mildew or bugs?
- Would it be more important for the photos to be maintained in a private collection, or would making the photos available to others by donating them to a public repository serve the greater good?
Last, consider the most likely individuals or organizations that may be interested in receiving the photos, and contact them first. It is possible that some photos will be of more interest to one particular organization, but others may better fit with a different organization, so several contacts may need to be made.
Prior to making the contact, review any specific policies online that discuss the criteria for accepting a donation. A guide titled Donating Your Personal or Family Records to a Repository prepared by the Society of American Archivists provides a good general overview of the donation process and what types of records may have historical value. A sample of a specific guide prepared by the New York State Library in Albany outlines that repository’s donor guide, titled Stuff in a Box.
The 10 options presented below suggest various places that may rehome your photo collection. In general, they work from those providing the broadest access down to the narrowest access, and several options suggest alternate uses for the photos that are not deemed within the realm of historic preservation.
- Large repositories such as a state library or archive, university library, or public or private research library with extensive manuscript collections. Large repositories may be accessed by many researchers who conduct local or social history studies. Most archives, libraries, and museums have a collection development policy that stipulates what they wish to collect. If your proposed donation of photos does not fall within the scope of what the repository collects, ask for a referral to other repositories that might be interested in your collection. To find lists of these organizations, search Wikipedia with terms such as, “list of archives in the United States” or “list of universities in Colorado.”
- State or local genealogical or historical societies or museums. Small local organizations may be less stringent and more interested in accepting the photo collection since they are often volunteer-run and have limited budgets to acquire new original materials. Sometimes these collections are co-located at a small local public library. To find these organizations, Google the town or county name plus type of organization, such as “historical society,” look up a genealogical society on the Federation of Genealogical Society’s directory, or use Wikipedia to query for “list of museums in Texas.”
- Specific organizations that maintain records such as churches, fraternal organizations, lineage societies, or businesses. These organizations may have a historian that maintains a private archive of materials related to the happenings of its members, especially if the donated materials depict member activities. If the original owner of the photo collection belonged to one of these organizations, they may be interested in the materials. Some of these organizations have a national governing body that may be able to direct you to a local branch or chapter. Google the type of organization plus the state name to begin the search.
- Online Social Archives. Consider an online community such as Creating Your Community, which is sponsored by Denver Public Library to connect and preserve Colorado history. This and other similar communities afford opportunities for individuals to contribute micro-history by uploading themed collections of photos. The site states, “While archives generally work behind the scenes organizing and preserving historical documents, records, and photographs for future generations, the hippest archives are seeking to embrace participatory culture to create social archives which include anyone with an interest in helping to collect and preserve history.”
- Local photographer or amateur historian. If there is no local repository that can house your photo collection, a local photographer or history enthusiast may privately collect photos and memorabilia. Over time as these collections build, they are often later transferred to a large repository one the collection has been expanded, organized and annotated by the hobbyist. For small towns, contact the local newspaper or town hall to inquire about who these individuals might be.
- Family associations, genealogists or distant cousins. Usually every family has at least one genealogist or family historian lurking in the shadows, waiting to gather every scrap of family memorabilia like a giant vacuum cleaner. If this person can be identified, he or she would probably be overjoyed to receive a bundle of heritage photos that originated within a branch of the family. Some families also have a family association that may be organized around a particular surname or may host an annual reunion. These groups often have websites or mailing lists and may be able to post photo collections online. To locate these individuals or associations, ask older family members for clues, as they may have corresponded with these people or attended reunions in the past.
- Dead Fred. Dead Fred is a type of lost-and-found website where photos can be posted for the benefit of others, including both identified and unidentified (aka “mystery”) photos. There are over 110,000 photos on the site representing over 18,000 surnames, and so far over 2,400 photo reunions have been documented. The site accepts uploads of photos taken prior to 1965 where all subjects are deceased, and the site will also accept mailed donations (see FAQs) of photos that the volunteer archivists will scan and place online.
- Antiques dealer, estate auctioneer or eBay. If no repository or individual is interested in the photos, a local antiques dealer may be interested in the collection. An estate auctioneer may also have contacts with individuals who have purchased heritage photos in the past. An online auction site such as eBay could be used to sell individual photos or the entire lot of photos to the highest bidder.
- School art, history or photography teacher. If you have not been able to find a good home for the photos and still cannot bear to throw them away, consider donating them to be used for educational or art purposes. A history professor at a local community college may be interested in using real photos for hands-on examples with his students, or a high school photography teacher may also appreciate receiving a limited collection. A local artist might incorporate the photos into a variety of vintage art projects. It is possible that most or all of the photos would be destroyed after their usage.
- Landfill. As a last resort, the unwanted photos could be trashed. This may be the only realistic option if the photo collection is non-specific, unidentified, poor quality, or is damaged beyond conservation. Before you choose this option, think twice, because there’s no turning back! You might consider setting the photos aside for a period of time before making the final disposition to allow time for other viable alternative options to surface.
In summary, caring for a photo collection is a big responsibility. Sometimes our best option may be to donate a portion of the collection to an organization or individual who can better care for the collection than ourselves. This decision is made easier when we are not personally attached to the subject photos; however, a decision to dispose of these photos should not be taken lightly. It’s quite possible that a new home for the photo collection can be located so that they may be enjoyed by others, now and in the future.