Monday 7 March 2011

Where private and professional meet - or should do.

Yesterday I was reading Saturday's Guardian and was very happy to find an article The Rise and Rise of Family Photographs about the issues of personal archiving, appraisal, and digital obsolescence of family photographs.  However as I continued to read through the article I got this awful sinking feeling in my stomach, the knowledge that I might have done something which is bad as both a family member, and, as an archivist.  [takes a  deep breath]... I think when I was clearing out my mum's house I may have chucked out a whole paper bag full of family photos.  Now to qualify this slightly, they aren't my immediate family photos as in my Grandparents/Great Grandparents, they are photos which my mum got when she was helping to clear out the house of a Great Aunt.  None of the photos had any names, dates or places on them and my mum didn't know who most of the people were in them.  She did say a few times that she hoped to get round to trying to put names to at least some of them, but sadly she passed away before she could do this.  I did however keep a leather envelope which contains photos belonging to the same Great Aunt and, given that these were selected and kept in better storage, it suggests they were considered of more importance, or maybe just the best of the collection.  So, in retrospect maybe what I did, or may have done (as I haven't quite got round to going through everything that I packed up from my mum's house yet so am still unsure whether I merely packed the photos away) maybe it isn't so bad after all.  I've still got a selection of the photographs, which were considered important, and I wouldn't have been able to put names to any of the faces anyway.  

I've got two boxes full of me and my brother's family photographs with our parents and grandparents, the majority of which are in albums but very few of which have dates or places attached.  I think decisions have to be made, and to me, my immediate family photographs come first.  Me and my brother will need to sit down and go through these photos, probably with our dad, in order to remember where many of them were taken.   For example the photo below is me and my brother - but where? This could have been taken on a summer holiday, most likely Arisaig or Arran, though it doesn't look like Arran to me, or it could have been a day trip away, maybe Millport or Troon - in other words even these relatively recent photos are in desperate need of labelling if they are to stay relevant to our family.  

© Kathryn Hannan (nee. Mackenzie)
When I was going through the bags of our family photographs in my mum's house there were also loads of envelopes of photographs in addition to the albums - I made the decision that I wasn't just going to carry all these on with me - I was going to make like a good archivist and sort and appraise them!  I did this with my brother, which was a great experience in itself, reminiscing about childhood memories.  We decided to remove all duplication, we got rid of lots of photographs of scenery with no people in them keeping only the best shots of a place.  For example we went to the Isle of Skye many years in a row, each year taking similar photos of the Cuillins and the Old Man of Storr, so we picked the best ones and kept them, getting rid of the others.  We also narrowed it down by getting rid of photos that were very similar, for example photos of my 8th birthday - just how many photos do you need of me and my friends standing round the table laden down with cakes and treats - answer, not as many as immediate instinct would have you keep.  We then put all the loose photos in spaces in the photo albums - at this point my archival practices went a bit out the window to be honest.  I just wanted to get them all in albums so the didn't get bent and torn in transit so I still haven't tried to date or label any of them.  Reading the Guardian article has made me want to devote a day, with my brother, to going through and doing that - not only would it be useful, but it would be fun too!

I tweeted about the Guardian article last night then today when I checked the blogs I follow I found a really interesting post by Melissa Manon at ArchivesInfo 'Culling Family Photographs'.  In her article she makes the very important point 
 "We really do not need to keep everything. We do not need to be afraid to determine what is unnecessary. We do not need to leave the "dirty work" for our descendants. If we do, eventually someone is likely to get frustrated and just throw the whole kit-and-kaboodle into the trash. Handing down a well-managed collection of personal papers and photographs to loved ones encourages them to treasure the items, keep up their maintenance, AND to value the family history that they embody."

These personal examples I've given really resonated with another point in 'Culling Family Photographs' - 
"Label, label, label. If a photo is worth keeping, you should provide its back-story. Use a photo safe pen or pencil to record the name of the person, place, and/or event depicted. If there is a "story" to the image, supply as much as you can of that too." (ArchivesInfo, Culling Family Photographs, March 5 2011).
Her article is full of useful advice about the issues of archiving family photographs, including the very important issue of appraisal i.e. do you keep it or not.  

From personal experience I, like Melissa, do take exception to the point made in the Guardian article by Michael Hewitt that in regards to uncertainties over whether something will be of value to future generations "The only answer, therefore, is to hang on to all of it, and let our descendents do the sifting."  Having been put in this position I am determined that I am not going to repeat it!  

Another thread running through the Guardian article was the issue of digital obsolescence.  Michael Hewitt makes the point that - 
"we all seem to need something approaching an information technology degree. It's a problem that will become increasingly common as we gradually entrust all our photos and home movies to digital media. Not just because of disk crashes. Format obsolescence won't help either... American Scientist recently dubbed this potential loss of generations' worth of photos and home movies the "digital dark age". We should, it says, all make an effort now to preserve them before it's too late."
There are so many issues encased in the worries over digital obsolescence, not least the fact that it is something which most people don't think about until they have a problem, for example their computer crashes and the files weren't backed up, or the files were only on the memory drive in the camera and the camera was stolen.  Also in terms of labelling - ok you might give the photo a title but where do you put the additional information - generally this would be on Facebook, Flickr, Twitpic or whatever other platform is used to share the photographs.  This means that the information about the photographs is detached from the photograph files themselves, and even if the files are backed up elsewhere is this metadata about them carried over with them?  I know that personally I didn't, until now, think of what happens to all the cataloguing I add to photographs on Flickr - not just places, dates, etc but the URL's that I'll add in to photographs of exhibitions, as just one example.  Then there are all the family photographs I haven't put up on Flickr that are just on my laptop and my camera - I should clearly have these backed up somewhere, but how do I add metadata to the photos? I don't know how to do that, I'm sure I could ask an archivist/IT friend but will I ever get round to it - I doubt it.  My option is still to print off the most important photos and put them in envelopes.  I have albums but as yet still haven't got round to putting any of the photos in them. 

It really gave me a warm glow to read this article in the Guardian though - to hear the terms archiving and digital obsolescence, and the concepts of cataloguing and tagging, discussed in such a thoughtful way.  Although I know I have a long way to go in terms of properly labelling and preserving my family photographs at least I feel aware of all the issues involved - now all I have to do is act on it and use my professional archiving skills for the benefit of my personal and family life!  


  1. Here here! We are in danger of losing all those things which we have cherished that previous generations have left us - and although I can see the fun in sorting through the detritus myself, my descendants may not be so pleased at my hoarding. Answer: Sort, label and keep paper copies of the things you really want to keep. We will never be able to keep up with every technological advance, so maybe as individuals we need to throw in the towel and admit defeat, afterall paper is tangible and concrete, even in a power cut.

  2. Hmm, I'm a bad archivist me. I know I've over appraised photographs in haste in the past, but we can't keep everything, or all the good stuff would flounder among the rubbish. Also, it makes the ones you keep all the more special.

    Having just been away to Paris for the weekend, snapping as I went, I do also agree with your appraisal of photographs of landscapes etc. Though this has resulted in me insisting people I know are in most of the photographs I take...

    I think you can add metadata to images using programmes like Photoshop.

  3. Zoe - I personally agree with you about paper copies - wouldn't want to apply it in the workplace, e.g. with e-mails or minutes of meetings, but I will definitely continue to print off my photos and keep them as tangible objects. That way you get the photographs themselves with all their memories, and also the collections of photographs, and like you say, sometimes even the albums they're in have lots of meaning too.

  4. Ms J - I'm really tending towards over appraisal in personal decisions than lack of appraisal - too many recent moves have made me realise it just isn't possible to keep everything. Your point about it increasing the importance of the ones you do keep is also very true!

    Thanks for the tip re. photoshop. I'm not sure what I've got on my macbook but will need to have a wee play around and see what I can do.

  5. Hi Kathryn,

    Thank you for the mention and insightful article. I've posted about the subject on my blog again. . It is so interesting and thought provoking to read people's reactions to this topic.

    Best wishes,