26 June 2010

Sorting Saturday--Sorting Photos and Documents

Can I be too thin, too rich or have too many photographs and documents about a particular ancestor? Maybe so, when it comes to writing and publishing a history. My sister and I are working on a history of my great-grandparents, James Johnson and Harriet E. Lamb right now (see photos). It's hard work. The text is written and had its first couple of edits. But over the years that I've been researching and sharing family history with my numerous Johnson cousins, I've gathered many many photos, documents, and clippings, as well as other miscellaneous ephemera about this family. How to sort it?

First, I like to name the electronic files with a system that does some preliminary sorting (when I'm consistent and know enough information about it). The system I use is name or initials 1st followed by DOC, PIX, EXT (research extract), LOG, OBIT, H&R (history or resource), NEWS, as applicable, then the date and a short description like place or occasion. That will automatically sort all the pictures, documents, clippings etc. by person, by kind of record, then by date.

Well that sounds good, but there are many exceptions that don't work with the system, and I've only used it for the last few years, leaving thousands of earlier files with other names. Not only that, I receive whole batches of "stuff" from other people that is not named in this manner. Sometimes it's easier to sort by where I received the files, as in Carol Brown collection or Bill Murri CD.

In writing a history, only the first few words of the file name are apparent as I look for something, so having them all say JohnsonJamesEtcEtc isn't that helpful to quickly grab the illustration I need. For this history, we came up with a solution that is working for us. We used the headings and subheadings of the text and generated a rough table of contents. Now we can look at the whole history at once and determine what should go where. It's a long history so I needed to break it up into smaller sections anyway, for easier reading. Having it in sections also has helped us to make sure everything flows, that what needs to be said is said and so we know where to put our illustrations.

Something I else I have to constantly remember is that everything I have doesn't have to be in this version of the history. I can use representative photos and other illustrations to help tell the story. I have to let go of my "all or nothing" thinking and say, "This is enough." We are including a CD with this history when we publish. The extras are going there. What methods do you use in dealing with too many illustrations for a history?


  1. Interesting and helpful. Right now, however, my bigger projects are more about preserving already-compiled items, mainly photographs in albums and the like. In such cases the presentation and order that the original is in is paramount, which isn't necessarily so intuitive when preserving assets for future generations. Albums put together with care, notes, and presented in a particular way don't necessarily translate well to digital media formats or electronic slideshows.
    Anyway I enjoyed your thoughtful overview of your process, and I'll keep it in mind. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your comment. I understand what you are saying about keeping a scrapbook or photograph album intact. Some of its value lies in the way it is presented. Yet still, preservation and availability is important. Our local university has an oversized (and very fast) scanner available for general use. It is also built to facilitate putting a book on the edge without straining the binding. I was able to copy a scrapbook of my grandmother's without damage or taking it apart in a very short time and then made a distribution of the scans on DVD to my cousins. I can also divide the photos and documents to be filed in my various folders as I have time and need.