Tips from the Archivist: Label your Photographs!

Nothing saddens an archivist more than receiving a collection filled with orphans- the photographic kind. At AJHS-NEA, we have hundreds of photographs featuring unidentified people at unidentified events, and the only clues we have to work with are the style of clothing, or, if we’re lucky, a car in the background to help us identify a vague time period for the photograph. We might be able to identify people who were identified in other photographs in the collection, but overall, most photographs come to us devoid of any information.

Think of how many photographs you take- either film or digital. Now think of how many of those photographs you have actually identified. It’s never too late to identify a photograph; even if you are unable to remember everyone’s name or the exact date of the photo, any information is better than none.

The best way to label your print photographs is to write on the back with a soft led pencil, preferably along the edge. The National Archives recommends using a felt tip film marking pen for resin-backed photographs, but make sure you let the ink dry before stacking or sleeving them. Remember to use only acid-free materials to house your photographs!

What about digital photographs? Many of you probably have scores of unidentified images on your computers, online photo sharing sites, or social media websites. How can you ensure those photographs are labeled properly and attributed to you? One way- and the best way- is to embed metadata in your photographs. Embedded metadata will “travel” with your digital photograph no matter what iteration it is in. See below for some resources on how to do that with specific photo software.

Also helpful are descriptive file names. “IMG4567.jpg” is not very descriptive, but “JoeSmith_CranesBeach_2014” at least provides the name of the person, location and date of the photograph. You can also create file folders on your computer that add to the identification schema: “Vacations 2013” might have folders that say “Civil War Battlefields March 2013”, “Cancun May 2013”, and “Boston Walking Tour June 2014.” Creating an inventory of your digital photographs, and keeping a hard copy as well as a digital copy, would also give you an opportunity to fill out more information about the content of the photograph.

Finally, as with all things digital, back up and copy! The more copies you keep on external drives, flash drives or online storage sites like Dropbox, the better. The same goes for your inventory.

Visit these websites for more information:

File Naming (University of Oregon)
Library of Congress – Digital Preservation
Photo Metadata
National Archives-Captioning Photographs

This entry was posted in Spotlight. Bookmark the permalink.