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By Laura Oles, author of Digital Photography for Busy Women

There are few things that can touch the soul more deeply than gazing at a picture of a loved one. And sometimes, those old photos—the ones crammed into a tattered cardboard box that had been sitting in the closet for years untouched—can reveal a path from your past that widens your world in ways you never anticipated.

My dad and I had often talked about “Grandma Mary’s box” and how we really needed to go through its contents and get things organized. We even looked through a few things but never really got serious about it.

Then my dad’s cancer returned.

I flew to Washington to spend some time with him, and we had an opportunity to finally tackle that box. There’s nothing like a health scare to put your priorities in place, and for us, those priorities included making sure that our future generations could find old family photos and learn the stories behind them.

Save your photo library to digital files and make it last

I thought I knew my grandmother and her origins, but going through those photograph gave me a much better understanding of her.

I learned my great grandmother was an orphan.

I learned what my dad was like as a teenager and about his early years as an Air Force Officer.

I learned what a savvy marketer and businesswoman my grandmother was in her day.

My dad and I spent several hours around that box. He shared stories and answered questions I’d never before thought to ask. I’m committed to making sure my own children (and one day FAR AWAY) my grandchildren know these stories and see these photographs. These images are a living pictorial of those who came before us; it is up to us to continue the tradition.

Here are a few tips to help you convert that box of scattered pictures and memorabilia into a living library that loved ones will return to often:

• Make it Fun: We tend to look at organizing projects as dreaded tasks, but this one can be an entertaining family event. Invite family over, order pizza and gather round the table or living room floor to get started. As you start sorting through photos, conversations will start and memories will be shared. Consider this a celebration of your ancestors and a way to honor their lives. It’s also a great way to spend a Friday night.

• Create Your Own Method: So many people think they need to organize photographs chronologically, but this can be a taxing and tedious process. Instead, look at the items and create groups that make sense. With our family photos, for example, we divided the piles into my grandfather’s and grandmother’s sides of the family and worked from there. We also created a “Cousins” pile and separate piles for newspaper clippings, passports/documents and other items.

• Label Photos: I joked with my dad about this because he kept writing “me” on the back of his old photos (The man has a Ph.D.!). I reminded him that the idea was for other family members to know who he was and that required using his full name. It doesn’t have to be fancy but try to be as descriptive as possible about the people shown in each photo.

• Choose Quality Storage Boxes: Don’t think that you have to put everything into photo albums. If you’d prefer to go that route, that’s wonderful, but acid-free archival boxes (each labeled accordingly) work very well for this purpose. Consider using upright plastic file folders (often used for in-process scrapbook pages) to preserve larger documents and newspaper clippings.

• Print Your Favorites Now: If you have a number of images that are trapped on your computer’s hard drive, take them to your favorite retailer or upload them online to a trusted source to have them printed on quality archival photo paper. These memories are far too valuable to be trusted to the Blue Nowhere.
So, please let me remind you that your photography is more than just a hobby.

It’s more than just shooting pictures at a birthday party.

You are creating your own living library, one that will touch countless people in numerous ways.

And it will continue long after you’re gone.

My dad passed away in June 2011, and I am forever grateful that we had that time together. I better understand the stories behind those many photos and now they will live on for future generations.

What story will you leave behind?

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