Fire and flood, whether natural disaster or human-made, pose great risks to our historical materials. However, the third F, forgetting, is the only fully preventable one. And if we fail to undertake this step, there is little point to saving the rest of it. An array of artifacts without any explanation or information pertaining to their purpose, background, use, etc. will do little to inform the future.
A Box of Historical Mementos with No Memory
Many of us have unearthed a box of family photos when going through a deceased relative’s estate, only to realize that we have no idea what most of the photos represent. Sure, that’s clearly a photo of Grandpa, but who are those other three men with him? Were those his brothers, or his closest friends, or colleagues from work? How old was he in the photo? What was the occasion? By the time you discover the photos, many of the family members who might have been able to answer those questions will have also passed, leaving you with a box of frustration instead of a treasured look at your family’s past.
The same thing occurs on an institutional level. For example, many Greek organizations meticulously store scrapbooks for years, but not all have taken steps to digitally preserve and record detailed information about what each contains. Failing to tag individuals in every photograph makes it impossible for future members to conduct accurate searches for images of past members.
Celebrity Sightings Section
One case for the benefits of digital preservation with necessary tagging is to locate a college-age Meghan Markle. When Meghan Markle, a Kappa Kappa Gamma, began dating Prince Harry the sorority was able to quickly locate her composite photo and anecdotal stories to shape a welcoming and true narrative about the Duchess-to-be. If Kappa Kappa Gamma hadn’t invested in a digital archiving strategy and fully searchable historical experience, they would have lost valuable time – not just hours, but days – manually searching through scrapbooks, composites, materials, and may still have come up empty-handed. Of course, this is a royal example, but there are a multitude of women and men who are lifelong members of organizations who go on to make incredible impact on our world, imagine how you could tell their stories.
What should you do if you have family or institutional photos you wish to preserve and make accessible to both current and future generations? Digital preservation with proper and comprehensive tagging is the best way to protect your materials, the stories they contain, the lives they safeguard, for future generations.
If digital preservation is not in the cards this year, we recommend taking steps to record information about your physical collection that can be integrated into a future digital archive.
Seven Steps for Recording Information to Future-Proofing Memories
- Do NOT write on the photos. Definitely not on the front of the photo itself, but ideally also not on the back. Additionally, a label does not serve as a good workaround – the adhesive will eventually damage the photo. (My grandmother had the tendency to write across everyone’s face!)
- Create a spreadsheet. Attach specific details to each photo (or any kind of item). Record who is in the photo, when and where the photo was taken, what the occasion was, etc. Get a FREE spreadsheet template.
- Record names. Use first and last names, not just descriptors like “granddad,” which lose their utility down the road when people don’t know whose grandfather the individual was. If someone used a nickname, include not only the nickname, but also the full first and last name so that digital searches can locate them regardless of which variant the searcher uses. Sadly, we often lose track of women in history because their names change. When possible, record maiden and middle names as well!
- Ask for assistance. If you need help gathering information about a photo, post a request in a family Facebook group or group text (or in an alumni site for your organization) and ask others what they know or remember about the photo.
- Be detail oriented. Even if you know all the information yourself and think everyone else in your family or organization will find it obvious, enter the details on the spreadsheet anyway. People die earlier than expected, have brain injuries, develop Alzheimer’s, or just plain forget, even when it comes to someone or something they thought they’d remember forever.
- Add a number to cross-reference. Using a special archival pencil, write a small number on the back of each photo that corresponds to its number on the spreadsheet. This is the only exception to the rule about not writing on the backs of photos.
- Print a hard-copy of the spreadsheet. Store the printed document with the original items. Then, anyone who finds the box will have immediate access to the relevant information without having to find a computer file. But, don’t forget to indicate on the spreadsheet where the master digital file lives.
These steps may seem like a lot of work, but future generations will thank you.