How to Save Your Old Photos: Tips from an Expert

Cathi Nelson,  Founder of the Association of Professional Photo Organizers, shares some thoughts on scanning photos and archiving their memories to make them easier to enjoy.

SC: What advice do you have for people looking to get started on preserving their family photos and memories? How can they get off the block?

CN: First step is setting a goal. It didn’t take a few weeks to accumulate all those photos, so it doesn’t take a few weeks to get them organized and preserved. Step one is what we call the “hunt and gather stage”, you can’t get started if you don’t know what you have. Once you gather all your photos in one place, you can take an inventory of what you have and then start to break the project down into small manageable steps with priorities. Do you want photos of your parents and grandparents organized first? Or your children?…and so on.

SC: What are some tools that people should consider investing in for this project?

CN: Cotton gloves, face mask for moldy photos, archival safe storage boxes for the sorting process, dental floss or hairdryer to remove photos adhered to old magnetic albums, sticky notes and index cards to make notes.

SC: Any thoughts on the role of professional digitization services?

CN: You can do this project yourself, but the professionals can work much faster and deal with any technology issues. Professional photo organizers recommend you organize your photos before you scan them otherwise you will get back the same mess but just digitally.  If you prep your photos and send them with note cards and important information, you will enjoy them when they are returned to you.

SC: Why do you think it’s important for people to spend time on organizing and preserving their photographic assets?

CN: Photos tell the stories of our lives; they are the deepest connection we have to our memories and past. They are priceless, but if left in disarray they will never be enjoyed by future generations.

SC: What does it take to be an effective family archivist or historian?

CN: A willingness to educate yourself on best practices. There are many online classes and support groups to help you get started.

SC: Any personal stories you can share from your work as a photo organizing expert?

CN: The stories are endless. This one comes from a client of professional photo organizer, Nancy McFarland.

“Our home in Malibu was at the center of the Woolsey fire. We only had minutes to leave and I couldn’t fit everything in my car. We had an old iron shed on our property and I placed my boxes of photos in there, praying they would survive. They contained my childhood photos and my children’s photos, everything I held dear.

Fortunately, my husband was able to stay behind and save the house but the metal storage building was consumed with flames. When I finally got the courage to open the door, I was terrified by what I’d find. Most of the boxes were reduced to ash from the heat, but miraculously I found four to five boxes that weren’t completely burned but the photos were melted together. I didn’t think there was anything I could do until a friend suggested I contact Nancy. She painstakingly cleaned and scanned the photos that survived. I know this sounds like an exaggeration for me to say this, but in some ways, I would rather have lost my house than my photos. In the wake of a tragedy like this, you realize what is really most important. Things can be replaced but our memories, nothing can replace a life worth of memories. As Nancy started restoring the photos, she’d send me a text message and I would cry with relief, when I saw my son’s first birthday and my favorite picture of my mom who passed away when I was very young.”

Cathi is also the author of Photo Organizing Made Easy; Going from Overwhelmed to Overjoyed and creator of two online courses, Printed Photo Organizing Made Easy and Digital Photo Organizing Made Easy.