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Steps for conquering sorting old family photos without feeling overwhelmed

Tuesday, 24. May 2016 by Renee Ellison

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Do you have boxes of old family photos that seem overwhelming for you or your aged family members to sort and identify? So it was for my mom, too—until we came up with a system for overcoming the overwhelmed feeling and plowing through the project to completion. These are the steps that worked for us.

# 1: I largely did the bulk of it for my elderly mom, and away from her, so she didn’t have to feel overwhelmed, even for one minute. I only asked her about two kinds of pictures:

1) about persons I couldn’t identify. If she couldn’t remember or didn’t know, we pitched those (figuring that if they weren’t meaningful to her, they wouldn’t be meaningful at all to her progeny). If she did recognize them and they were significant to the family tree, I wrote some brief identifications in pencil on the back of them.

2) about some select keystone pictures of her own childhood, so she could amplify the events and feelings around those pics. Mom enjoyed this part immensely. I only showed her a few of these pictures a day, so it didn’t feel rushed.

#2: I removed all of the photoprints from the old albums, because those old albums take up enormous space, the pages turn brittle, and the covers break off. I had to pull some of the photos out of decaying sleeves with a pair of small needle nosed pliers (this worked great, and was fast). I set all of them in shoe boxes; they condensed wonderfully down to manageable size. We went from large, heavy boxes of chaos down to super-organized little boxes, all neatly labeled and organized, that could be stored on a shelf in anyone’s hall closet.

#3: I threw out all pictures that were of only scenery or wild animals, or were far-away shots or cloudy and unclear and underexposed shots, or unfavorable shots of a person—a photo the person would feel embarrassed about or unflattered for posterity to see. Not all pictures taken are worth keeping; just because they exist doesn’t mean they have to remain existing and use up people’s time viewing them, down the road, in future generations.

#4: Next I went to a high-end shoe store and asked for as many shoe boxes as he would give me—boxes with removable lids on them—and sorted the pictures into those boxes by person. All pictures with only one person in them went in these boxes—each box labeled with only one person’s name on the outside, in huge print. All group pictures went into that particular family’s box.

#5: After all of the pictures were sorted I then arranged the contents of each box, further grouping those pictures by event or time period—filing them in the box by grouping events or time together—and then stuck 3x5 cards tall-ways with little titles on them stating what that section of pictures was about. The viewer then pulls just that section of loose pictures out of the box to view them, and then puts them right back in the box, under that section’s title.

#6: Mailed pictures (or full picture boxes) to each individual who would treasure them. (An option would have been to take a quick photo via cell phone, to email someone who could then reply if they wanted to have the originals.)

#7: I distributed the grandparent and great grandparent pictures to their descendants as evenly as I could, so each person had “roots” pictures. smile

#8: I collapsed—and rejoiced that it was done for all time and that the job was so meaningful.

For more on this topic, order our guide for preserving your family papers and photos.

Filed Under: Home management tips

1 Total Comments Steps for conquering sorting old family photos without feeling overwhelmed”

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  1. 1 Kelly Thompson 25. May 2016 10:00 AM

    I had to smile when I saw this post this morning…how did you know I am working through an enormous box of photos?  I love your suggestions.  I had thought to myself it would be less expensive to use photo boxes than try to scrap book ALL those photos.  Thanks again for great advice!  Kelly

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