Passing on Photos to Future Generations

by Tim Soles

This article was published in the December 2013 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

This article was originally published in the December 2013 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society

If you have been lucky you will have inherited some old photos passed down the generations and probably stored in a tin or box. If you are really lucky they will have the names, dates and locations written on the back.

Often the photos are passed down the main family line when someone dies, but do spread your net wide with your research because they can end up in the hands of very distant family members. This happened to me. I never knew my grandparents, but my father’s mother was the eldest of nine children all of whom emigrated to Canada and the US with the exception of my Grandmother who stayed in the UK because she was already married and settled. To cut a long story short, I eventually received some photos of my 2x great grandparents in the early 1900s from a very, very distant cousin in Canada.

In recent years the sudden arrival of digital photography has completely changed the way we take photos and has reduced the likelihood of them being preserved for future generations.

My mother is in her 80s and uses a digital camera but not a computer. One day she mentioned to my brother that it was difficult to view all the photos she had taken on the small screen on the back of the camera. Without asking, my brother kindly got all the photos printed for her. What was intended to be a helpful gesture got the unexpected retort “What am I supposed to do with all of these!”

This sums up the major problem with digital photography, it is too easy to take vast numbers of photographs, most of which will never be looked at again! No longer are we concerned about the cost of the film and developing it. In those days you wouldn’t go around taking hundreds of photos, instead you would make sure that you only took the best views on special occasions.

We were able to spend 10 days in Italy earlier this year and came back with nearly 700 digital photos. I am pleased to say that we did manage to whittle them down to the best 60 for a real album, but it was a difficult and time consuming process.

Recently, we were walking along the bank of the Thames and we overheard someone saying that their computer had packed up and they had lost all their family photos. It is a fact that computers fail, either through software problems or viruses, or through mechanical failure usually because the hard drive has worn out. It is possible to recover data in most situations, but great care is needed to not make things worse and you might end up having to pay an expert to sort it out.

I have mentioned quite a few different scenarios above, so let’s turn to the actions we can take to preserve our photos for future generations.

Firstly, don’t die! A silly comment, but it will happen to all of us, and we don’t know when it will happen. This is the time when there is the greatest risk of the family photos being lost forever. The family might not be interested in your old computer and worse still, if it is password protected, they might not be able to access the contents. A simple handwritten note with your Will indicating where your photographs are and what you want done with them might be a good start and reduce the risk of them being lost forever. If you use social media such as Facebook or Twitter, then make sure your family have access to the passwords when you die because they have no legal right to inherit the data you have posted.

Also, consider handing copies of your photos and research to your family now. They might not be particularly interested at the moment, but at least it will make them aware of what you have, and can be a useful form of backup against later loss.

Then there is the more difficult question about what photographs to store and how and where to store them. There is still the option of getting your important photos printed and labelled and stored in a tin or album. Professionally printed photos are likely to last longer than photos printed at home which are likely to fade over time, depending on the quality on the ink and paper used. Having said this, I do have some colour prints in albums from the 1970’s which were commercially printed at a cheap film processor and they are badly faded. The Italy album I mentioned earlier was printed by Photobox, one of many film processors where you can upload your photos and design your album and captions online. The glossy finish is very similar to what you would find in a book and I think it likely that this will last a very long time. If you haven’t already put together an album containing all the old family photos then it is well worth doing, and much more likely to be preserved for future generations.

Let’s move on to storing digital photographs taken on modern cameras, phones, iPads etc. The places you can store them are memory cards, CDs & DVDs, computer hard drives, and more recently Cloud Storage.

Before I briefly look at each of these, remember that technology is changing rapidly and whatever medium you use now, you may need to transfer the information to a different medium at a later date. I have some treasured family recordings on video tape but we are no longer using the video player!

Memory cards are the usual storage medium for cameras and phones and they are quite reliable as there are no moving parts. As technology moves on the capacity of cards continues to increase and the cost per Gb of storage falls. They are delicate and should be handled carefully, and the gold contacts should not be touched. As with all things, the better quality branded cards will last longer than cheap cards. The life of a card is usually judged by the number of times it is used (read/writes) and although cheaper cards have been known to fail after a couple of years, most will last for very many years.

CDs and DVDs are similar in many respects to memory cards. There is a debate about ‘CD Rot’ and some disks, predominantly the cheaper ones, could become unusable after several years. Although these disks appear bullet proof, they should still be handled and stored with care to avoid greasy fingerprints and scratches which will reduce the life of the disk.

Most people store their photos on their computer but this actually carries more risks than the previous storage methods. I have already mentioned that hard drives can become scrambled by software problems or simply wear out. Very old computers are difficult to repair because the parts are often no longer available. However, I do hold the view that your computer is the best place to store these items if you have reliable and regular backups of the computer contents elsewhere.

Cloud Storage, such as Dropbox or Google Cloud, is a fairly recent innovation only made possible by faster computers and faster broadband speeds. In simple terms you backup or store your data on a server somewhere on the Internet. It works well, but if you have a large amount on your computer it can take many days to upload the information and a similar time to download it back to your computer. Some service providers limit the amount of broadband usage and cloud storage is best if you have a fast connection and unlimited usage. I use cloud storage for backup purposes but being old fashioned I also keep a copy on a spare computer at home. There are very small risks when relying on a third party to store your information. For example, they might go bust or have a technical failure themselves. Also, you are relying on the Internet to retrieve your information, and although most of us enjoy good quality internet access, and it may be that this could change in the future.

Finally, I would briefly like to cover the best way to index or structure your photos on your computer.

If you are using modern family history software, then import your family photos and attach them to your research records. Also, keep the original digital photos elsewhere on the computer in case the family history software is ever corrupted.

Most digital camera and phone software create dated folders on your computer which are worth keeping. It’s a good idea to add the location or event to the end of the folder name to help you find them in the future. Just right click on the folder and select Rename. Recent Windows versions index the folder and file names and you can use this to quickly find your photos. For example if your software has created a folder named ‘2013_10_13’ for the photos you took on that day, you could rename it ‘2013_10_13 Andrew Wedding in York’. That way you still have the benefit of the dated folder structure, but a search on your computer for Andrew, Wedding or York will also find the folder.

The individual photo files are usually numbered and if you are keen you can rename the files to something more descriptive, although this is not really necessary if the folder description is adequate. If you take lots of photos you can give them a star rating to help identify the best or most important photos. This can be done in Windows 7 onwards using the file manager, and most other imaging software has the same facility.

Do think about the future and the best way to make sure that your important family photos are passed on to future generations.