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My sister visited from Kansas last week and we went through a box of old pictures, trying to identify relatives and ancestors. The photos in the box came right up to the start of the year 2000, but after that almost nothing. Recent photos live on our smart phones and computers. They aren’t available to be handled, sorted or even viewed in the same way the old photos are. Something is gained, but something, surely, is also lost.

These days, we don’t have to worry about getting the ‘right shot’ or about posing people for the one picture we’re taking. Without the limitations of film (do you even remember film cameras?) and the expense of photo processing, we’re free to take pictures all the time. And we do. It’s also easier these days to share photos – just an online posting or email will do it – so everyone can see our pictures.

But at the same time, there’s no box. There’s no scrapbook. There’s little chance to write a reminder of who is pictured, when the shot was taken and where. Instead of archival photos, these days we create what is known as “ephemera.” Our pictures are so numerous and so physically insubstantial that they have no individual importance. They don’t last.

They also are scattered. Some are on your computer, some on your phone, some on the digital camera, some – the ones somebody else took – only on Facebook. Some you’ve posted to Instagram or other sites. They’re everywhere. That means they’re nowhere. Your children and your children’s children won’t be able to look back as my sister and I did, contemplating the funny hairstyles and amazing living conditions of past lives.

An article by Heidi Glenn for National Public Radio offers some insight into this problem. She suggests that expanding technology will make it easier to embed information into photos themselves and that even face-recognition software might be applied to identify mystery pictures. But she also points out that technology depends on the continuation of the platform on which that technology works. Not every program or app at work today will endure even into the next decade.

So, what to do? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Edit your photos. The ability to take unlimited numbers of photos means we’ve got an awful lot of awful pictures. Go ahead and delete the ones that you don’t want to keep forever.
  2. Rename your photos with who, where and when. “Susan-Grandma G-2013-Hilton Head” will fill in the gaps in your memory years down the road.
  3. Collect your photos into digital folders. You might organize your folders by year or by person. You might have special folders for big events. Folders make it more likely you’ll find the photo you want to locate.
  4. House those folders in more than one location. You might house them on your computer but then make certain your computer is backed up, maybe by one of the low-cost automatic backup services. Or create a free website, using something like Google Sites, and share the website with other family members. Now you can add in not just names and dates but stories about what the pictures show. Be certain that you don’t rely exclusively on an online service that might go out of business someday in the future.
  5. Make regular additions and updates. You don’t want your digital photo albums to be frozen in time. Make a date with yourself to add and update every month or so.

And, finally, digitize old paper photos you want to keep. According to NPR’s Heidi Glenn, future generations are unlikely to have a photo box like mine and my sister’s. Creating digital copies of those old photos will make them more shareable and will help to keep family history intact. That’s what my sister and I did while she was in town. We made digital copies of family photos from the early 1900s and shared them with our cousins.

Photos are the keepers of our family memories. Keep your family photos well!

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.