Are you looking for the best way to organize and store your old family photos? It’s one of those projects that can be flat-out cringe-worthy! Most of us have boxes full of 4×6” Kodak prints, film slides, and VHS tapes that are gathering dust. You know you want to organize them, but you don’t even know where to begin. Together, my mom and I organized our entire family archive of hundreds of photos, and I picked up a few helpful tips along the way. I’m sharing our step-by-step process, some photo organizing products I love, and encouragement to get you started!
My mom and I began the project of organizing our family archive a few years ago. After my family moved from Indiana to Atlanta, Georgia, my mom and I looked at our thousands of photos and knew we had to organize! We had Tupperware bins and cardboard boxes brimming with drugstore photo prints, negatives, school pictures, VHS tapes, slides from the 1960’s, and memorabilia from family vacations and school events. As a photographer, I loved the idea of looking through each and every one of our family photos and media. My mom, not so much! The process definitely did not come without it’s headaches. But, we figured out a few strategies and systems to make the process easier.
Not only will organizing and storing your old family photos be a major win in the organization department, it’s critical that you protect these family memories. Photographs and different types of media have an expiration date; they deteriorate over time without proper storage. A flood or fire could damage your photos beyond repair, or a move could misplace them. If you’re ready to start organizing and protecting your old family photos, let’s get started!
How Not To Lose Your Mind
By undertaking the task of organizing your old family photos, know that you are inherently at risk of losing your mind! If you have a family archive of hundreds or thousands of photos like we did, it will trust your patience. Set the expectation upfront that this project will not happen in a day, and it probably won’t feel “completed” for several months or longer. To avoid getting overwhelmed, you can complete smaller goals here and there.
Additionally, know that reminiscing as you dig through photos is the most fun part of this project! Let yourself enjoy the trips down memory lane, but also be mindful of how much time you’re spending reminiscing. Once your photos are organized, you can easily flip through them again and again! Know that you can and should break this project up into small steps, which I’ll help you with in the following steps.
Set a Goal
Before you pull out any of your family photos, set a goal. Ask yourself why you are organizing your family photos. What is your purpose or reason for undertaking a project of this size? It could be to protect your photos from damage or loss, to create a photo album for a family member, or to ensure that your photos will be passed down to the next generation. Keep your why in mind as you organize to keep you motivated.
Gather Your Organizing Supplies
In order to efficiently organize your family photos, you have to have the right tools and supplies. You’ll want to make sure everything you use is labeled archival, acid-free, or photo-safe in order to maximize the protection of your photos. Here is a checklist of essential items to have on hand before you start organizing:
- Index cards for labeling
- Photo safe pen
- Archival clear photo sleeves or folders (it’s good to have a temporary storage solution while you figure out exactly how your collection shapes up and how you want to store it. Purchase a quantity that will hold your estimated number of photos)
- Archival photo box (you can hold off on buying your final storage solution until you have a better idea of how you end up organizing everything, but at least start thinking about what you may want to use and what would work with your space)
- Cotton gloves (oils on your fingers can degrade photos over time. If you don’t have gloves, always work with clean hands and try your best to hold photos on the edges)
- Dental floss (you can slide a piece under stubborn photos stuck to album pages)
It’s also a great idea to set up a space dedicated for your organizing efforts. Setting up a card table or in an office where your in-progress organizing won’t be disturbed is ideal.
Set Up a System
Before you organize anything, it’s essential to settle on a system. Start by pulling out a few of your boxes and photo albums. Take a quick look through what you’ve got, and start thinking about the best way you could start to group your photos. What seems to make the most sense for your collection of photos? It’s best to start organizing broadly, so that you have the flexibility to change how you organize. You’ll likely discover your best way to do it as you go and dig through more photos. Here are a few ways you could start to group your photos depending on what makes the most sense for your collection:
- Decade (1980-1989, etc.)
- Era (grade school, teenage years, college, etc.)
- Category (school events, family vacations, holidays, etc.)
- Person (this can get hard because lots of photos will likely overlap between people, but it may work for how you want to distribute your photos after they’re organized)
- Side of the family
For my family archive, it made the most sense for our end-goal to have everything organized chronologically by year, month, and event. If this is where you want to end up, start by organizing broadly by decade or era. Then, once all photos are organized broadly like this, you can go back and organize into smaller, more focused events and timelines. This will help prevent you from getting overwhelmed from the beginning!
Organize Your Old Family Photos
Once you’ve decided on a system, it’s time to start organizing! The easiest place to start is with your existing photo albums. Most of the time, these are already organized by year or event. If you’re ready to part ways with outdated, bulky albums, take out the photos stored photos (the dental floss trick is handy if you have any stubborn photos that are stuck!). Start creating neat piles of photos that go together. Label them however you’ve chosen to organize (by event, year, category, etc.)
It will be necessary to edit your photo collection, trashing any duplicates, blurry shots, or photos that don’t tell the larger story. Take the Marie Kondo approach when deciding what to keep or toss. Hold each photo in your hands and ask yourself if it brings you joy. Will you love looking at this photo time and time again? Does it help tell the story of the event or occasion? Does it bring back any special memories? These questions will help you quickly determine whether you need those extra shots.
As you go through your collection, you’ll also likely find photo negatives, Polaroids, old photos that need restoration, video tapes, and paper memorabilia. Start organizing these into separate piles. You can set these aside to have scanned, restored, and converted (I love this container for storage in the meantime). If your priority is organizing your photos, know that you can come back to these when you’ve reached an organized place in your photo archive.
Store Your Photos Safely
When you feel like you have organized to your heart’s content, storing your collection safely is an essential step not to be ignored. Store your photos in safe place away from direct sunlight, humidity, and drastic temperatures (such as your attic or garage). This will help preserve your photos for years to come.
I love these clear plastic photo organizers. Each box holds 100 photos, and the entire case holds 1,000. You could put labels on the tops so you can see what’s in each box from above, or label the front!
Once you’ve stored your physical copies, you can create digital backups by scanning your photos. After organizing your entire family photo collection the last thing you probably want to do is start organizing them digitally, but it’s another essential step in the process. This is a gentle reminder that you don’t have to accomplish all of this at once! There are plenty of services that will scan your photos for you and organize them onto USB drives or the cloud. I am writing another blog post about this process soon.
Tell Your Story
Now that your photos are organized, you can start thinking about how you’ll display your collection and tell your family’s story. Scan a few of your old favorites and send them to family members. Frame your favorite prints and create a gallery wall in your home, or place a few in frames around your house. Once you’ve scanned your photos, purchase modern photo albums to scrapbook your favorite family memories. A family archive should be a living, breathing document of your lives, not stuck in boxes never to be enjoyed.
I hope you agree that this is the best way to organize your old family photos! Organizing and storing your photos is a life-long project. Soon on the blog, we’ll talk about how to organize your digital photo files, so stay tuned!