Saturday, March 12, 2011

When is it OK to Throw an Old Photo Away? - Sorting Saturday

Several days ago Nolichucky Roots called my attention to a fantastic article over at a blog that is new to me called ArchivesInfo. The title of the article is Culling Family Photographs and it has some wonderful tips on that subject.

One sentence really caught my attention because it's something I really struggle with.

If an old image sits around for years and nobody can be found who knows anything about it, do you really need to keep it? (No)

An accurate statement, in my opinion. But how many years does it take before you decide to toss an old photo? How hard to you look for that somebody, somewhere who knows about that old picture? How hard and long do you look for that piece of information, that tiny clue to open the story of the photo? The answer is going to vary from person to person. So what are some of the factors that play into answering this question? Here are a few that I came up with.

  1. How important is the picture to you? How important do you think it might be?
  2. What other items or photos are with the picture that you found that could potentially provide clues?
  3. Is there anyone living in your family who might know something or someone that could give you the answers you seek or at least some leads?
  4. How many items like this do you have?
  5. How much room do you have to store these types of items?
  6. How much time and effort do you want (or are able) to put into your search?
  7. How broadly do you want to search? Immediate family? Extended family? Message boards? Historical Societies?
  8. Is there anyother family member who would like to have the photos?
How have you handled the issue of orphan photos? What do you consider to be important considerations in decided what to keep and how long to keep it?

© 2011, copyright Michelle Goodrum


  1. Michelle, this is a good question. I do not have lots and lots of orphan photos, so I am going to keep the ones that I have. When I organize and identify all of my family photos, I am going to indicate that the orphan photos are unidentified and, for those in albums, provide information on the photos on the same page - for possible dating purposes. I haven't yet exhausted my list of cousins (none of our parents are living) to ask about these photos, and there may also be older people in my mother's home town who may be able to identify them.

  2. Most likely everyone wonders this same thing. This reminds me of my grandfather's mantra to label, label, label all of your own photos. You are the only one who can identify them. Don't leave any orphan photos for the next generation! I have posted some of my orphans on Wordless Wednesday. Thanks for a great post!

  3. Two words: Rosie O'Donnell. Remember on her episode of WDYTYA? The portrait hung in the playroom for decades, but they had no clue who the woman was. It was only after they found the other branch of the family that someone recognized her and was able to put a name to the face. I would rather record what I know, where it came from, who kept it, who they got it from if it's known, with dates for what is known, then you have at least something. Even if all you have is "we found this picture in Nana's bureau drawer after she died in 1988" or something like that. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  4. Greta and Scrappy, thanks for your observations.

    GeorgiaTim - You hit the nail on the head with your Rosie O'Donnell observations!

  5. Oh come on.... If you were to throw something away, you would be setting a family precedent that hasn't been broken for 4 generations!! Are you THAT brave??? ;-)

  6. Some good questions to ask. I know I would be very cautious before throwing old photographs away completely. You never know when that one clue will come to light to identify that photo. I know photographs can be identified because long lost 3rd cousins gor in contact with each other - both had a copy of the same photograph but one cousin knew who was in the photograph. But I realise people can't keep everything all the time. If all else fails I would definitely scan the photos and put them up on the web with as much information about the provenance of the photo/album/collection as you can glean. Then maybe donate them to historical collections? I wrote a blog post on this topic last year and at the moment on my blog I am publishing unidentified photographs from a album that belonged to my great great grandmother (dating from the 1880s/1890s).

  7. This is a great topic. I have been working with my grandmother to ensure we don't have quite as many orphan photos. In our family line she is the only one that knows who these people are and I add their information as I scan the photos in. Thanks for the reminder to stay on top of this project. I don't want to have to throw any photos away!

  8. Anonymous, Naaa, I am not that brave and don't want to set the precedent. My dream is to identify each and every one of those orphan photos and get them organized so that the 5th generation won't set the precedent either :)

    Aillin, I like your point of scanning and recording the provenance if you can't/don't want to keep something. I enjoyed your article too. It has lots of links for resources.

    Heather, Good for you! You are lucky to have someone around who knows about your old photos and smart to take advantage of it while you can.

  9. Thank you Georgia Tim! I'll be stopping by soon.

  10. Thank you for tackling this issue head on! I knew this topic would generate controversy when I wrote it in my original blog post. I think everyone in the comments section makes good points...My intention in writing the post is to point out that everything is not equally valuable and our collections are often stronger when we cull what is most important. As people who appreciate history, we tend to get excited about anything that seems "historic." As a professional archivist, I have learned that this is not the case with most people. Passing a shoebox full of unidentified names and faces on to the next generation invites the next generation to toss the whole thing. Cull your items carefully. Do not keep things for the sake of keeping them. Have good reasons for doing what you do. List why you do it. If you want to keep an unidentified photo because it intrigues you, write down why it intrigues you. Don't just keep it because you are afraid to throw it away. Don't let your photo collections control you.

    Thanks Michelle for providing good clear guidelines to help people work through this issue.

  11. I keep re-reading comments and finding more to say :) lol! The fact that Rosie O'Donnell's photo was hanging gave it a little more meaning than a shoebox full of loose photos of faceless people. I wouldn't throw away a hanging photo either. One photo in Nana's bureau is also different than a shoebox full. I would ask questions such as "why is this one image given prominence?"

    I do like the idea of digitizing an image before getting rid of it. Scanned photos take up a lot less space and can be neatly kept in a folder labeled "unidentified." We just need to be sure to migrate data.

    Thanks again Michelle. I look forward to read more through your blog!

  12. Thanks Melissa for stopping by and adding some excellents points to the discussion.

  13. Great comments/conversation. Thanks for keeping the thought going, Michelle.

    I would add, that though I do throw away more items than other people might, it is only after I've digitized anything that might illuminate my research. And I have compared snapshots in my files to those a cousin sent to "document" our connection. Mine were labeled - hers weren't. But that we each had them provided evidence of a family connection.

  14. Thanks for stopping by Nolichucky. I agree that digitizing those items you don't want to keep but might prove useful is a good way to cull.

    I liked Melissa's comment also to document those items that you do decide to keep so the next generation will know why.

  15. Thanks for your post and all the great comments. I'm facing the same decisions in my ongoing photo scanning/organization project. My wife and I are only children. My father once had a photo finishing business and always took a lot of pictures. My wife's father was an award-winning amateur photographer with his own darkroom. And, as anonymous pointed out (and it gave me a great laugh), no one in our families ever threw anything away, especially photographs. I'm glad for that, but . . .

  16. Jim, It sounds like we have a few things in common :) Thanks for stopping by!