Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, September 13, 2013

Saving our heritage one digitized image at a time

Within the last week or so, I have been asked multiple times about what to do with a pile of documents and photographs. In our throw away society, we have been told so many times that junk is not good, we begin to believe that keeping documents and photos is some kind of illness or disorder. In fact, we have TV programs about hoarders and portraying them as mentally ill and showing the struggles of people who cannot part with their belongings and the roads they take to recovery. Saving our family's cultural and historical heritage is not hoarding.

The questions to ask about any document or photograph are rather simple:

  1. Does the item contain details of a person's life that would be lost is the item were destroyed?
  2. Does the item help to explain some aspect of a person or family's life?
  3. Is the item in any way unique and/or irreplaceable?
  4. Could the item be used to create details about the life of the person or family that could be recorded in a book or story?

I am sure that there are more such questions, but I assume you can get the drift of the concerns about disposing of items of historical interest. Very frequently, I hear stories about records accumulated by a genealogist being thrown away by uncaring relatives or friends upon the death of the researcher. I am living my own family's story right now with the Overson Negative Collection. I am presently in the final stages of transferring the images to the University of Arizona for archiving and display online.

Until digital images became commonly available, photographs were usually unique. It was both time consuming and expensive to reproduce a photograph. Essentially, you had to take another photograph of a photograph unless you had the negatives. With the negatives, you could make as many prints as the photographer wished, but each one cost more money. As a result, people usually only had one copy of any photograph.

One question that comes up frequently, concerns photos of unknown people. Especially in older collections of photos, it is not uncommon that people would have photos from friends and even distant relatives but fail to identify the people in the photos. Since, at the time the photo was new, everybody knew who the people were, there was no need to write anything on the photo about the identity of those shown. So in older collections, the people are not identified.

This is one of major challenges with the Overson Negative Collection. But I have found that, with a little work, I can usually identify most of the people, especially if they are relatives. In my case, I am helped by having an extensive genealogy book written by my Great-grandmother, the photographer. But even for people who are not in the book, it is possible to reconstruct a lot of the history of the area where the photos were taken and by referring to other images, online and in books, identify many of the people. For example, there are photos of graduating classes from local schools for various years, the lists of the graduates are usually available and sometimes the photo taken by my Great-grandmother is reproduced.

But the photos have a much more valuable historical use than simply showing what the person looked like. The photos show the interior of homes, the furniture, the clothing of the time period, outside shots show people working, farm equipment, cars, wagons, horses, cowboys, wagon trains, all sorts of images that bring the history of the family to life.

What this all boils down to is that as genealogists we have the opportunity and maybe the duty to preserve our family's documentary and artifact heritage. One of the first things that can be done is to establish an ongoing family effort to collect and digitize each and every document or photograph and make them widely available to our extended family members. Of course, not all of the family members will place the same or even any value on the preserved items but that is not an issue. What the others in your or my family think of the images is immaterial to their real value. By making and distributing digital copies, the chances of images surviving is much greater. In appropriate situations, the originals should be given to an appropriate repository for safe keeping, but not before copies are made for family members. In one case, I was told by a repository that had some of my Great-grandmother's photos, that they were copyrighted and that I could not copy my own Great-grandmother's photos. This was even after I told them that I knew some of the photos were copyrighted and that I owned the copyright and had the original in my possession. At the very least, we can now put the copies of the photos online on a preservation website such as's Family Tree.

We should all be actively involved in seeking out and preserving our family's heritage.


  1. It's not very often that I find a blog post that I agree with 100% James but this is one of them.

    The issue of misdirectred copyright protection is especially interesting.

    Well said!

  2. James, good article. Scanning is essential for preservation and portability. It also enables sharing of one of a kind photos and collaborative preservation of family history. If one chooses not to put digitized photos online (e.g. due to privacy or copyright concerns), two back-ups - one on CD/DVD and another on a cloud-based service (Dropbox, iCloud etc.) would ensure long-term preservation of irreplaceable photos.