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A Picture . . . and a Thousand Words!

(from Genealogy Gems Monthly Column by Allen County Public Library – 4-30-2015)

by Curt B. Witcher, Genelaogy Dept.
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For more than a century, the concept of a picture being worth a thousand words has appeared in print and has been used by orators of all types. It is interesting to muse about that value of photographs in our family history collections and personal archives. We so enjoy looking at photographs of ancestors, pictures of the good old days, and images from recent celebrations and activities of our current family members, friends, and colleagues. And we are so grateful when we turn the photographs over or look on the borders of photo albums and see that the people and events portrayed are at least partially described, and sometimes completely identified.

Often times, though, our disappointment with family photographs passed down to us runs fairly deep when box after box, album after album, are filled with amazing images, all unidentified. We muse, why didn’t someone take a few moments all those years ago to make at least a few notes on or about the pictures? My question for you–will our grandchildren and their grandchildren ask the same question about our collections of photographs and images?

The waning days of April and the first couple of days of May have been designated by the American Library Association as “Preservation Week–Pass It On.” This year, The Genealogy Center highlighted the preservation of photographs. We tend to focus a lot of attention on preserving actual photographic entities, whether paper or digital, when we highlight preservation–and that’s appropriate. However, equally of consequence for preservation purposes is identifying the people in the photographs and the events captured in the images.

We are placing the photographic and image histories of our families in great jeopardy if we don’t make the effort to organize and identify them. Take a quick look at the photographs you have taken or captured digitally in the last ten years. Are they all identified? I am guessing for many, the answer is some form of, “no, not exactly.” Take a look at the ones not identified. Can you, today, write meaningful, complete captions for those with confidence? If not, then your ability to truly preserve these unidentified images has started to degrade at generation zero. How many generations of descendants will be able to identify people, places, and events from yesteryear without the accurate and complete captions and notes perhaps only you can create? And once photographs and digital files don’t have obvious relevance, they may be quickly relegated to unimportant, and then recycled.

Do you ever muse about what will happen to all the photographs, documents, and digital files that make up your family’s history after you’re no longer around? Do all the captions and descriptions of your photographs only live in your head? How much of your genealogical work is only recognizable and understandable by you? Even if it is a small amount, I would suggest that needs to change.

As summers are typically the times most of us enjoy family reunions, I strongly suggest that we collectively use this time to commit to identifying images and artifacts in our collections, and further, recording those identifications. Use family reunions as opportunities to solicit assistance from family members who may know more about a particular family grouping, photographic images, or family story than you do. You can also use the task of preparing for family reunions as a great time to “re-unite” information about a photograph with the photographic entity itself. It’s a reunion of a completely different sort!

I can appreciate that going through boxes and gigabytes of unidentified data can be a daunting, arguably overwhelming, task. Recall the proverb, though, that the longest journey begins with the first step. Tackling a large project is most successfully done by breaking it into smaller, more manageable and more doable pieces. If there are many albums of unidentified pictures, pick your favorite one (or smallest one!) to work on first. The same tactic readily applies to boxes of images. Pick the smallest box, the grubbiest box, the cleanest box, the box you recognize or that brings you memories–which ever one piques your interest. Then stop looking at what remains to be done and focus on all the great progress you’re making. If you handle just two photographs a day, you’ll have fourteen done in a week and sixty done in an average month.

Some of us are faced with the challenge of having large collections of images about which we truly know nothing. They may have been handed down to us by a relative, and we just put them away before really examining them and asking the relative for more details. Maybe some were given to us at a family reunion and there was no chance to ask for details. Don’t despair. There are still ways to add some metadata to the images.

**See if the content or subjects of the unidentified photographs match one that is identified. You can then group all those photographs together as potentially coming from the same person, family, or location.

**If you have a number of unidentified photographs but you know they were from your Uncle Marvin, you can group them together as your “Uncle Marvin Collection.” Perhaps there will be an opportunity in the future to converse with an Uncle Marvin family member about the images and obtain more detail at that time.

**If a group of unidentified photographs is in a particular album or other container, attempt to determine if there was a collecting theme for the album, e.g. was it a personal album, a church or family reunion album, a special ceremony album (graduation, birthday, wedding, retirement, etc.), a military scrapbook, a work-related album, and the like. Often times discerning and understanding the collecting context can help us look for opportunities for providing even more context for, and definition to, the images.

Being creative in your analysis of unidentified photographs can provide some significant benefits.

So many of us use our iPhones, iPads, and other tablets to take many hundreds, even thousands, of photographs each week. We may have taken some of these images just for the fun of it–something caught our eye, we were served a particularly delicious-looking dessert, or we found a humorous sign or billboard. However, a good number of the photographs we take with our mobile devices we really intend to be “keepers.” Those graduation images, that christening, the military marker next to that War of 1812 ancestor’s tombstone, the seventy-fifth anniversary of our church–all of these we want to last. Keeping them exclusively on our mobile devices is not the way to ensure that longevity. Downloading those images and saving them in a couple of different locations on a couple of different formats of media is best.

Oh, by the way, just downloading the digital images isn’t quite enough. As we’ve discussed throughout this entire column, we need to identify those images. Using an Excel spreadsheet, or equivalent program, is one way to create a list or inventory. Key the image ID in one column and the description in a corresponding column. One can also use a word processing program. Some individuals are creative enough to put an amazing amount of detail in the actual image file names. That is truly awesome to behold when done well and consistently.

As I close this column, are you wondering at all about why I titled it the way I did–a picture and a thousand words? When I was an adjunct professor at our regional Indiana University-Purdue University campus teaching continuing education courses on family history, one of the assignments I gave to my students was to pick an ancestor and compile a thousand-word essay on the individual. Yes, that’s right, a thousand words! After getting over the initial surprise and shock of such a request, most eagerly took up the challenge. If you really want to chronicle the lives and times of your ancestors, especially those for whom you have photographs and other images, challenge yourself to write one thousand words about each small, related grouping of photographs. Piece by piece, article by article, you just may be writing your family history.

Writing one thousand words isn’t as difficult as you might think. I hit one thousand words somewhere toward the beginning of the paragraph above that starts with, “So many of us use our iPhones, iPads, and other tablets . . .” Cheers!

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