It all started when we were faced with making room for my son and his family to visit for Thanksgiving. My husband brought out four boxes of unsorted photos and said, “This is your job.” Yikes!

I knew better than to start the sorting process with company coming, but cleaning up was the spur I needed, once we had enjoyed visiting with children and grandchildren. Make no mistake—sorting and prioritizing family photos is work. It takes time. It will bring up many feelings, some of which may be very painful. It is not something accomplished in a weekend.

The best move I made was to set up a dedicated table. Did I mention that this will take time? Throw out photos that are blurry, ones that cut off people’s heads, photos of events and people who are now forgotten, and duplicates. Those multiple photos of your garden? That lovely rose? Mountains in the distance on a trip somewhere? Unless they’re part of a narrative that you can make sense of, let them go. Important photos you have will otherwise be buried under the mass of unorganized, unprioritized photos.

Spend money on photo albums that are archival quality; there are many choices out there. Avoid peel and stick albums—they are damaging to photos. Here’s a site with lots more information about photo organizing:

Obtain archival pens, or use a soft pencil to identify important information on the back of each photo you keep. Write the name of everyone in the photo, approximate date, and location. Additional information such as the event celebrated, or the story behind the photo is helpful, but do not use ball point pen! It will damage the photo. Here’s a good source for archival pens:

Rather than paying for each photo to be digitized, it may be cheaper to purchase a printer with scanning capabilities, or the flip-pal portable scanner, which can digitize any size photo or other picture.

Share the task of sorting through photos. I invited a friend to spend an afternoon with me. She helped me sort photos by decades, and provided extra hands and emotional support as we went through photos that documented difficult times in my life.

Set photos aside for extended family members. You may have photos that mean much more to extended family than they do to you and your children.

Share your digitized photos. I had lost track of a special set of pictures, but uncovered them in the process of organizing and prioritizing photos for my children. Here’s a slide show of photos I assembled, based on a time my children and I documented how we made coconut candy each year for Christmas presents.

Ask either of my children about ‘The great coconut hunt’ and they will nod, then start giggling. It was a family farce—but aren’t many of our best family stories just that?  

Blaze orange-1Marjorie Turner Hollman’s history degree is from Bridgewater State College. Her fifteen years as a professional storyteller and her years as a freelance writer have given her personal history work a unique perspective. She is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and has completed two guides to Easy Walking trails in Massachusetts. The Chapter Coordinator for the Association of Personal Historians New England Chapter, she is a Certified Legacy Planner with, and is the producer of numerous veterans interviews for the Bellingham/Mendon Veteran’s History Project.