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Winter is a great time to work on old family photos

When captioning photos, print legibly and use a pencil or an archival pen.
When captioning photos, print legibly and use a pencil or an archival pen.
Gene Forrest


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Looking for a great activity to do together as a family?  Why not gather the family photo albums together and those pictures still lying loose in boxes, and let everyone help label them.  It is a great way for kids to learn the names of relatives and family friends.  And it is an occasion for adults to reminisce and to share family stories the kids may never have heard. 

There are several things to know before getting started.  Never write on the front of the print; always use the back.  To prevent fingerprints from getting on the photos, use white cotton gloves available from art supply and photo stores. Print the names rather than using cursive, because not everyone writes legibly. 

Prints made before the 1970’s are probably on fiber-based paper, while more recent prints are likely on resin-coated paper.  A pencil should be used on fiber-based prints, as ink can bleed through the paper.  On the other hand, ink is better for resin-coated paper because pencils do not write well on plastic.  Look for a fine-point fiber-tip pen with archival, permanent ink.  Ink should be allowed to dry before stacking prints.  Care should be taken not to press down hard with the pen or pencil, as it could leave indentations.

If known, write the date the picture was taken, the names of those in the picture, and the location where the picture was made.  It is best not to use terms like “uncle” or “mom.”  If listing names left to right, and someone’s name is not known, be sure to leave a blank space so the name can be added later if it is learned.

After labeling comes organizing.  Possible ways of grouping photos are by the decade in which they were taken, by relationships, by events like birthdays, holidays, and vacations, and by place of residence if the family moved.  The Practical Archivist has lots of advice on organizing photos. 

To avoid later frustration, do a trial run of 50 pictures, putting them into your chosen categories to see how well those categories work.  Many pictures may fall into more than one category, and some may not fit neatly into any category.  Families should do the easy pictures first and save the difficult ones for last. 

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