Scanning Old Photos

Photo of Kathy’s Grandmother from 1911

For the past several months, Kathy & I have been working on a project of scanning old photos.  We had retrieved a couple dozen albums from Kathy’s parent’s house after they passed several years ago, some of them dating back to the early 1900s.  We had promised to scan them to digital files to be shared with her brother & sister and any other relatives that might be interested.  In addition to those photos we had albums and boxes of our own photos, some from our separate childhoods up to when we met, then hundreds of photos from when we were married, all of our kids, vacations and other activities up until we started taking digital photos.

Now that we have more free time, we decided to use the winter months to finally tackle those old photos.  We knew it would be quite a project, but we didn’t really realize how big of a project it would be.  But we’re just about finished, at least until my brother decides to clean out his attic and bring me all of the photos from my own side of the family tree!  And I still have binders and boxes of my old slides to address at some point.  But that is a different project, that if I decide to face it at all, will come at a later time.

Kathy’s Great Grandparents from the early 1900s

One of the difficult decisions we faced with these old photos was what to do with them once they were scanned.  To me the whole point of scanning them is to get rid of the paper.  Makes sense, right?  It’s not reasonable to expect that anyone else is going to want to take over boxes and boxes of old photos, loose now because they have been removed from the albums.  And many of the albums had to essentially be destroyed in order to get the photos out.  Our kids have grown up in an age that hardly ever prints anything, and they certainly don’t want to inherit all that stuff!  The logical conclusion was to toss them out, and that is what we did.

Throwing away old photographs was all well and good until it came time to scan the photos from our own kids when they were growing up.  It didn’t bother me to throw out old photos of people I didn’t know, but the idea of tossing photos of our own kids into the trash gave me a bit of angst that I hadn’t anticipated.  I struggled with it for a while, but ended up rationalizing that having the digital copies preserves the memories that those photos represent, and that having the paper stored in a box somewhere out of sight was ultimately no different than storing them on a hard drive somewhere that I never looked at.  And this way they are preserved for posterity, using the same methods I use for all of my other photos.

Kathy’s Grandfather and his brother from sometime in the early 1900s

The idea of throwing away anything old can be difficult, and perhaps the idea of throwing away actual family mementos can border on horrifying.  We went through a lot of this when we downsized from our larger home to where we are now, but we got through it.  My one concession to the idea that “everything must go” is that I decided to keep some of the really old photos.  My decision to keep them was not necessarily because of who the people are, but simply because they are old photos.  There is a historical value to keeping them, and I’m thinking of them more for their value and interest as artifacts and less for the actual people they represent.  I’ve attached copies of a few of them here.  I haven’t saved many, but some of the oldest and more interesting ones will go into an archival storage box.  But just one box!

I’ll plan to do some more posts about some of the technical aspects we faced and how we resolved them.  I know that we’re not the only people facing the prospect of what to do with old photos, and hopefully our experience will serve as something of a guide for others who are thinking of doing the same thing.  We’ve talked about offering our scanning services to our neighbors, but I think we’ll hold off on that for a while, as we’re kind of tired of looking at old photos.  And very soon it will be time to go make some more photos!

4 thoughts on “Scanning Old Photos”

  1. I’m involved in a similar scanning project, Tom. It will take years at the rate I’m going since, like you, it’s strictly a winter project. I see the necessity of doing it but, to tell the truth, I find it boring and dull. Couple that with the fact that I find myself sentimental about throwing out such things. I commend you on your discipline. Keep at it and when you finish, I have several thousand photos that you can scan.

    1. It wasn’t the most exciting thing for me, but the upside for me is that it freed up three shelves in my closet! Kathy kind enjoyed reliving the memories, since most of them were her family. I wasn’t worried about someone complaining of me getting rid of the photos, figuring that since no one else volunteered for the job it was up to me to do what I thought was best!

  2. I went through this exercise not too long ago. I did it with my wife’s family photos as I knew her and her older sisters would eventually fight over who got to keep the albums. I almost regretted it as soon as I suggested it because I realised that there were dozens of albums and that in many cases the photos would be destroyed if I attempted to remove them from the albums. That was when I had the idea of using my wife’s high-res camera on her phone. I even found an app that helped the process greatly and allowed me to do it without touching a single photo. I don’t know how you did it but this method was all so quick and easy. The only time-consuming part of the process was after scanning the images, a number of them needed to be “fixed”. Faded tones, rips, scratches and other marks had to be painstakingly removed or with the tones, enhanced and refreshed. In the end I didn’t mind doing it but I am not sure I would volunteer so readily to do it again. Though the scanning part was a breeze. Anyway, in the end everyone got their own copies, probably to remain unseen in their digital “box” for ever. Or until digital gets replaced with some other format.

    1. I’ll write more about it in a future post, but I sprang for an Epson photo scanner that feeds the photos through quickly, scans the front and back to capture any notations, and applies an auto-correction that works pretty well. For the larger photos or the few we couldn’t get out of the albums we used a flatbed scanner. We decided that it wasn’t our job to “repair” any old photos, just to turn them into digital files. If someone later decides to go back and restore them, they are more than welcome!

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