Picturing Your Research: Finding, Procuring, and Preserving Images

There is an old saying that pictures are worth a thousand words.  While this may be up for debate, what is true is that a photo is worth nothing if it is destroyed.  Many of us have family photos that we consider precious and want to pass down, but we must first preserve those images.  Michelle Novak, a professional genealogist, shared some of her secrets for not only preserving family photos, but also ways to find and procure photos that have genealogical relevance.

Photos bring life and reality to one’s genealogy.  They not only show us how an individual or location appeared at a given period of time, but also tell us more about the life they lived.  Most of the time, photos are passed down within the family, but there are other sources from which one can find personal or relevant photos to augment one’s collection or inform their research.  National repositories such as the Library of Congress, National Archives II, or Historic Aerials as great places to check, as well as local organizations such as the NJ State Archives or local historical societies.  While they may not have named individuals associated with a picture, they may have location-specific pictures that can include former properties, places of employment, or public gatherings in which a family member may appear.  Additionally, photo sharing sites such as FamilySearch or Facebook Groups are a great way to exchange photos that extended family or unknown familial connections may have.

Before we discuss how to preserve images, it is important to point out that all photos are copyrighted material.  The copyright holder of a photograph is the individual who took the picture, not the subject of the photograph.  According to U.S. copyright law, a photograph becomes public domain 70 years after the death of the copyright holder.  However, this only applies if you plan on using the images for any commercial or reproduction purposes, which includes sharing it on public sites such as Facebook.  Additionally, it is important to think about the wishes of the subject/subjects of the photograph before sharing it; is this something that they would want others to see?  One tool to help track down the origin of an image, such as one that was used as a feature image on a genealogy blog, is Google Reverse Image Search.  You can upload the file and Google will attempt to track down all of the sources where the image is found online.

So now that we have all of our photographs, how do we keep them safe?  First and foremost, all photographs will age and degrade, regardless of how we store them or try to preserve them.  However, limiting their exposure to light and storing them in archival sleeves will certainly help slow any degradation.  Sleeves that have a PAT Passed designation are certified to be of the highest archival quality.  Additionally, storing certain photos in a freezer will help slow down any degradation.

The easiest and best way to “preserve” a photograph is to make a digital scan.  Scanners are considerably cheaper than 10 years ago and have such high resolution capabilities that you can make very good copies of your photos.  Additionally, scanning photographs will allow you to enlarge small photographs to see in greater detail.  Standard flatbed scanners are the best when dealing with photographs and you should avoid All-in-One machines as their scanning software and capabilities are much worse when dealing with the details of a photograph.  Michelle’s mantra is “do it once and do it well”, which means scan your photographs using the highest resolution you can.  The minimum recommended resolution is 600 ppi (pixels per inch), with most modern scanners being able to capture images in 2,400 or 3,600 ppi.  Additionally, you can purchase flatbed scanners that will also create positive images of slides and negatives.

Once you have your photos scanned, it is important to come up with a file-naming convention that will allow you to easily identify any photograph.  Having a photo named grandma.jpg tells you very little about the photo; please see page 5 of the handout for examples of how to name your files in more detail.  Also, you can use photo-editing programs, such as Adobe Photoshop, to extend the canvas of the photo to include important information, including image location, date, subject of the photo, or whatever else you feel is important to know about the image.

For more information about finding and preserving your photos, please take a look at the handout, https://www.njstatelib.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Picturing-Your-Research.pdf, or contact Michelle Novak at mnovakdesign@me.com.