The key to getting your arms around this material: digitizing. Here are five reasons why digitizing your photos and footage should be a high priority.
Reason 1 — Access
Why do we organize our genealogy? We need to find what we want, when we want it — and we also want to know what materials we have and what research we've done. The same is true for photos and footage related to our family history. You may have some photos framed and on display, and others in boxes tucked away in a garage or closet. Maybe some photos are with other family members. It can be very difficult to know what photos you have in your possession or might have access to from others.
Video and film footage are even more challenging. That footage is trapped in an old format that most of us can’t even view anymore. What gems are hiding in there?
When you’ve digitized your vintage media, you'll have it in one place. When you are looking for a particular image or video clip, you’ll know just where to look. No more digging through boxes, taking photos out of frames and photo albums, or dragging out the VCR or film projector — if you even still have that equipment! Digitizing this material puts it at your fingertips.
Reason 2 — Preservation
As genealogists, we understand the power of the fragments and bits of our ancestors’ pasts. We often lament that our ancestors did little to take care of them. In my family, a flooded basement in the 1940s destroyed a trunk that contained photos and documents brought from the old country of Ireland. While that was decades before my birth, it feels like lost treasure. Too often the family bible and family photos are tragically thrown away by someone who thought “who would want these old things”.
So we gather what we can and pledge we’ll do better for the generations to come. When it comes to photos and footage, that “doing better” is digital preservation. Once you have a digital image, you have a back-up of that precious material that can be saved and shared.
Time, humidity, light — these are the enemies of photos, film and video. If you’ve had your materials in archival storage and a temperature-controlled environment — excellent! You are very unusual. Most of us don’t realize that this media is at risk of decay.
The photograph you have of an ancestor may very well be the only image on the planet of that person. What a responsibility! By digitizing that image, you are ensuring that fellow family historians and future generations can see and appreciate that photo too.
Are you lucky enough to have old films and videos of your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents? That footage isn’t doing any good trapped in an old format that most of us don’t have the equipment to view. Tragically, film and video is at a high risk of decay, and keeping it tucked away in a box somewhere is not keeping it safe. While it might be fine today, you can be sure of one thing — the quality will not get better as time passes. You would be wise to digitally preserve whatever footage you have.
Reason 3 — Clear Up Clutter
Boxes of vintage media take up physical space. You can free up that space by getting that material into a digital form. Shelves of scrapbooks and photo albums? Imagine a collection of ebooks instead. Boxes of old photos? Imagine high-resolution images organized in folders on your computer. Reels of film and stacks of video cassettes? Imagine a set of DVDs and an online account for viewing and sharing the footage on your computer or smart phone. All that is possible today.
Reason 4 — Story Telling
You may have a family tree on Ancestry or FamilyShare or other application, or you may write biographical sketches of each ancestor. When our images and footage of our ancestors are digital, they can be easily attached to our stories and trees, moving them beyond mere dates and places to something much richer.
Reason 5 — Further Your Research
Sometimes an old photo or piece of footage holds clues that help us break through our research brick walls. A tiny photo that I found belonging to a distant cousin included the name of a church. With that one photo, my ancestors were no longer from “somewhere in Germany" — I now had the exact parish to which they belonged. That one fact, from that one photo, pointed me to the records of generations and generations of my family.
Offering to share photos and footage can entice others to work with you. When I see a researcher on Ancestry who seems to be a descendant of one of my ancestors, I message them and let them know that I would be happy to share the family photos that I have. I find others are more willing to share the info and images they have when I’ve offered mine. That’s how I learned that my great-grandfather was an oyster fisherman on Long Island Sound in the early 1900s. My newly discovered distant cousin shared photos of him with his boat. My offer to share digital photos was the olive branch that opened the door to connection and learning.
Another way to use digital images and footage is with a descendant group on Facebook. If you aren't a member of such a group, consider starting one. I’ve started two private groups and participate in another. Because my photos and footage are digital, I can easily post to those groups. I ask questions — things like “Does anyone know where this photo was taken?” or “Who is who in this photo?”. I’ll post an image to commemorate a birthday or anniversary of an ancestor, and write a short post about them. I had an old film of my dad’s transferred to digital and found footage of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the 1950s, which the extended family was thrilled to see. Posting images and footage to these descendant groups spurs conversation and fosters connection — and often leads to others posting stories and photos from their collections.
If you’ve already transferred your photos and footage to digital, how do you find it helps you with your genealogy?
Laura Clark Murray
I help people capture and expand the knowledge of their family history, and guide them on using online research to find the stories of their ancestors.
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