So it has happened. Because of a sad family loss or other tragic circumstances beyond your control you ended up being in possession of a shoebox full of old photos and documents.
You’ve looked through them. Faces, places, stories, that may be familiar to you. And very likely, you come to realize that this is a puzzle with a lot of missing pieces. That’s what I thought when I ended up with lots of photos of my Grandmother from when she was young. I certainly recognized her, but who were the people in the photos with her? Why were they laughing? Where was this taken?
The documents you inherit may be old, fragile. The photos may be damaged, ripped, stained, moldy.
You’re thinking: “What on earth am I going to do with all this?”
First thing: Take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. It happens all the time.
This post will be the first of a few that should help you get enough advice to get an idea of what may be involved in the process of assessing and storing old photos and documents.
In my experience, there are three categories of photos and documents:
1. They have no value other than that of the personal/sentimental kind, as it would be for family history. Their damage is minor, there is no mold present. The primary focus should be on getting them digitized, photos sorted and labeled and documents transcribed. This will ensure that should they deteriorate further or get lost, you have saved them for the family. Digitizing also means that you can share them with family that might not be living close by you. Sharing files online is an awesome advantage of our digital age. Once digitized, sorted and transcribed, the originals need to be stored correctly.
2. If you suspect the photos or documents to have collector’s value, you may want to get an appraisal for them. If their value is minor, you don’t intend to handle them much but still want to keep them save, you might want to follow the steps above. If their value is substantial and the plan is to handle them frequently, I strongly suggest you consult a conservator.
3. The whole lot is moldy and smells. This is a health hazard. I hope you were wearing a particle mask and gloves while flicking through them! Keep the moldy stuff well away from anything else, before it contaminates everything in its surroundings, and please consult a professional conservator ASAP.
Understand this: Photographs will fade over time, no matter what you do. Paper will deteriorate, no matter what you do. But you can slow down the process by avoiding their exposure to light, heat, humidity and pollution.
The photo below shows some snippets from a collection of about 20 letters from WW1, that I had the great honour of digitizing recently. This involved preparation of the previously folded letters for photographing, by carefully flattening crushed edges and pressing them overnight between acid-free sheets of paper, building a suitable document stand with a large white background, photographing them by daylight, without direct sun and no flash or any other artificial lighting sources. They were in very good condition so only needed some basic digital retouching to increase contrast and enhance the faded ink. Lastly they were all saved on a USB thumb drive, for their owner to share with the family.
One hundred year old letters. It was very moving to read what young men so long ago wrote home to their families.
So if you’re tempted to just shove that shoebox back into the back of the closet: don’t. It’s someone’s history. Treat it right.