Scanning All of Our Family Photos … What’s the Actual Point?

by | Last updated Sep 22, 2018 | Scanning Photos | 34 comments

Hi Curtis,

I found your site as I'm in the position of being the sole heir to my family photos. My first logical thought was to scan them all, but I'm struggling a little with the question of … why? What's the actual point?

As the ones scanning, we get the enjoyment and satisfaction of going through the photos, reliving memories and seeing moments of our parents and grandparents lives. We might even print a few off in a bigger size to put up. But then all it is, is 6,000 photos sitting on a drive. I don't have any children or nieces/nephews, so what happens when I die?

Even for those with children, are they interested? They might enjoy a few photos of their grandparents, but the older slides will be of people they never knew. Even less so for the next generation.

It's probably far too morbid and depressing for a post, but it's just something that I think about. There's a lot of information about how to scan all your photos, but not much discussion on why. It's just presumed as a given.

Many thanks!

Jennie Shingfield
Norfolk, England

For anyone with children, or with other family members such as nieces or nephews, the answer to whether or not we should scan our old family prints, slides and negatives may seem quite obvious.

But, when I received this email from Jennie, asking me why she should go through all the trouble of taking on such a big scanning and organizing project when she doesn't have younger family to pass it on to, I was struck with the thought that many of you might be asking yourselves the same question. Maybe even for some of you who actually do have family to pass your scanned collections on to!

 

Plastic bin full of paper prints — all different sizes

Let's Discuss This Please

I would love to open this up for discussion with everyone here because I think this topic is so important.

The question that's really at hand might be summed up best like this:

If you don't have or know anyone that will truly cherish your scanned photo collection once you've passed, is there even a single reason to scan any of your old family photos?

Can one person derive enough pleasure from the outcome of having all of their old (analog) photos scanned and turned into a digital form to warrant making this project worth the time and energy involved?

Please Share Your Thoughts With Us

I wrote Jennie back and gave her a small handful of reasons I thought might help her make the decision of whether it's truly important for her to still scan and organize her family's photos. But, I told her I was going to post her important question here for all of you as well to read and think about for yourself. There will be many reasons you come up with that would have never occurred to me to share with her.

 

Your Personal Task:

In the comment area below, I would love for you to share the thoughts you came up with of what inspires you, or will someday inspire you to finally begin to scan and organize your old family photo collection.

Two important things:

1
Don't Be Influenced

Please don't be swayed at all by what others write. Your opinion matters just as much as theirs. If you feel you might be, don't read what others have written until after you've posted your own comment.

(And know that you have 3 hours after you hit “Post Comment” to come back and edit your comment should you think of anything else you'd like to add or change. wink )

2
Same Answers Are Actually Good

Just because one person writes that “Reasons A, B, and C” are what is inspiring them to scan and organize their collection, doesn't at all mean you shouldn't say the same “Reason A and C” also inspires you. In fact, it's actually quite the opposite. The more people who say they are inspired by the same specific reason(s), may be all some people who are “on the fence” of whether to do this project or not will need to understand this project will also be rewarding for them. Many us feel the most secure when we share a commonality with others.

I would love for this post to be an ongoing discussion here for today, tomorrow and for the years to come. The answers everyone gives will truly be inspiring for every single person reading them in the future who are sitting there debating whether even scanning a single small box of prints is worth their time.

We can't wait to read what you've shared!

 

Your voice and the way you choose to word your advice to Jennie and anyone else reading this who is feeling the same way, may be the single factor that will inspire them to take action and find joy with their new digital collection.

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John L
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John L

HI,

This blog has been good to get an overall handle on what to do. I still haven’t a good solution to having my mix of scanned and later pics in a place where I can write more than cursory notes on them. I’m currently using Photos and have whittled down about 17k pics to about 13k having imported many duplicates.

My goal is to be able to write whatever I want about any pic. Not alot but a memory here and there. It’d be nice to have them all in order and I am somewhat along on that, having adjusted the creation dates of about a third of my pics so that Photos will have them in order. The other 2/3s may get done eventually.

My idea for software, an extension to Photos or some app that can use the Photo’s library as is, would have each pic on a page. On one side or the other (left up to the user), there’d be space to write what is needed. Below that space for a map and tags. All this is user-customizable. Tags, from Photos and with the ability to add new ones, would lead to pages of pics that the user could click on to see them in the set format they chose. All text would be searchable and lead to whatever pics have that text.

The apps I’ve seen so far don’t allow for good enough text additions. I don’t want to make books that I have to buy, although that could be an option if the user wanted. Just a simple photo database that has good-enough text capabilities. I’ve tried using text editors and that gets complicated fast, copying and pasting from Photos. Would someone want to design this software? A free version would be nice with a paid option if you want to store your pics on the cloud…

I’d love to hear any suggestions on how to accomplish what I’m looking for. Thanks.

Pops
Guest
Pops

I’ve been thinking along the same lines. But having been burned once by proprietary software (Picasa), I’m a little bit gun-shy about the idea. I no longer spend any effort organizing my scanning projects in anything but computer files, at least so far. I’m thinking of putting together a database that will contain photo references, tags, and text descriptions, which could then be put online with a nice user interface – that seems the way to go to me. I’m a software engineer and can probably figure out how to make this work, although it’s outside my areas of expertise (image processing and other scientific computing). And I’m not quite retired yet, so I don’t have a lot of free time. Yet.

Mary Gunderson
Member
Coins: 22
Mary Gunderson

I scanned many photos last year to make a slide show for my mom’s memorial service. Was thinking I’d like to do the same for my dad who died many years ago. I’m glad I did the one for my mom though because of tech difficulties few ppl saw it. For my own use, I would like to have organized slide shows of trips that have been meaningful as well as some collections of key times of my life as well as a show of old family photos that will tell a story. I’m a writer in my early sixties and envision I’ll enjoy these in the future. And, it leaves a record behind. I face the fact that my photos may end up discarded. I will probably have to off-load many myself. The point is to think about how I’ll enjoy them myself, the doing of the project and the having.

Leslie Pilcher
Member
Coins: 32
Leslie Pilcher

I agree with the sentiment that the photo files are not ultimately worth much if they stay on your computer and are eventually deleted because no one in your family is interested in them after you’re gone. However, chances are very high that there is SOMEONE out there who would give anything to have one of those photos – because someone in their own family is in them. Many family photos have other people in them who are aunts, uncles, cousins, or even direct ancestors of someone who is not in your immediate family or among your direct descendants. I am into genealogy and have found photos that unknown relations have attached to their online family trees that depict my own ancestors. These are priceless to me. I have several branches of my not so distant ancestors where there are absolutely no photos. If I knew that someone out there had a box-full of photos that just might have one of my ancestors in it, I would be ecstatic.

The problem is – how do we share all these photos and how do we find out who has them? I have scanned at least 1000 photos and have several thousand left to go. I’ve named them in such a way that you can order them chronologically and tell who is in them and what I’ve done to edit the photo. Then I’ve added keywords to the metadata. It is a LOT of work, but I would gladly share them with anyone. Too bad there is not an online repository for these collections or at least a way to alert people that you have a collection that potentially contains photos of particular families, or something like that. A photo of an ancestor is the “holy grail” of a genealogist!

This is an interesting dilemma. It is a lot of work to scan all these photos – an overwhelming amount of work, it seems sometimes. And then to name the files and identify whose in them….. it is exhausting. So, it does seem reasonable to question the value of it over the long-term. But, I also know the thrill of stumbling across a photo of one of my ancestors as an incidental in someone else’s photo of their grandparent’s wedding party, say. The ultimate value of these scanned collections will lie in our ability to share them beyond our own immediate families. Maybe “Scan Your Entire Life” has some ideas on how this could be done….

Barbara Tien
Guest
Barbara Tien

Hi there, Leslie, I’m a software entrepreneur and we’re working on something that’s leading in this general direction.

Your insights are very interesting. It breaks my heart to see any image from the past lost or destroyed. It’s also tricky because in the triangulation between family photos, genealogy, and DNA testing lies a nest of very sensitive privacy issues — not to mention family secrets.

Feel free to reach out to me at @pongapictures on Instagram, I’d love to hear what you’re up to.

Pops
Guest
Pops

I realize this is an old comment, but… I post a lot of photos on FamilySearch.org. I inherited a negative collection that dates back to about 1920, and I’m in the process of scanning it. Fortunately, my mother is still alive (in her 90s) and helps by identifying people who aren’t family members. I can often find the people on FamilySearch and can then link the photos to them there.

Joseph Lurz
Member
Coins: 27
Joseph Lurz

I am 80 years old and currently am the oldest living member of my family. Sometime about 1995 I decided to find out more about “us”. I wanted to know how and why our ancestors came to the USA. I tried to pin down the many stories of shipboard romances on the way to America and other tales. I learned that about half of the family stories were either exagerated or were just fabricated to fit situations. But, happily, I also found a large number of relatives that had drifted away from the main part of our family and who had become forgotten.

I had inherited or got the use of most of the photos from both sides of the family and it was a daunting task to attempt scanning all of them. That’s why I became very selective. There are well over 50,000 photos in my computer, some dating back to about 1870. All of this made a good story with a family tree and photos. Everything is freely available to all members of my extended family. However, what I learned is that almost without exception, only a few care to even have the family tree. Almost none have any interest in the photos or the story.

With any luck at all I expect to be around for many more years. I ‘ll continue my family research, although at a lesser effort, because I now know that no one really cares. It’s sad. Other than taking necessary financial and some personal information off my hard drive, I expect my PC will be wiped clean and probably tossed out. The photos and family trees will probably be forgotten as though they had never existed.

And I smile when I think that someone in the 2100’s will wonder about their past and think why no one ever made a family tree or saved family photos.

Laurie McCarthy
Guest
Laurie McCarthy

I would suggest that anyone who is collecting family photos and scanning them that they add them to Ancestry.com. There are other ancestry forums, you could put them on those as well. You can also donate them to the state archives in your state – usually in the capital of your state, especially if you have gone to the trouble of metadata-ing them and putting them in chronological order. Imagine how wonderful it will be for the distant or lost relative who decides to look into his/her family of origin and finding this treasure you have done. I have my own scanning business in Mississippi and today I am taking two genealogy books to the Mississippi Archives and History for inclusion in their genealogy division. It is exciting for my client and their family and hopefully for families in the future.

Your pictures are IMPORTANT – whether your present family wants to deal with them or not, they are IMPORTANT and will be IMPORTANT to someone in the future.

Thanks

Barbara Tien
Guest
Barbara Tien

Oh, my goodness, Joseph. Though I can appreciate the ache of investing in something without the feedback from family, realize that you are contributing a significant asset to the larger community.

I wonder if anyone knows of an adopt-a-photo program for lost or neglected collections. The context you’re attaching to them may be incredibly valuable to local museums — especially those in the community you and/or your family grew up in. Have you tried reaching out to them? I know here in the SF Bay Area, the Oakland Museum has a fabulous photography collection. The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) have regular scanning days to help Chinese-American community members through scanning projects. In return, they keep images for their own collection.

Feel free to reach out to me at @pongapictures on Instagram, I’d love to stay in touch.

Patricia Parker
Guest
Patricia Parker

An open tree account on Ancestry.com will make them available to anyone related in any way to any branch of your family. You can put many photos under each person’s name as well as give written documentation and your own journalling about it. Also, FOLD- is a good place online to put photos that could be useful to some. There are also repositories for any military related photos and information that you might have. You might try googling that, I have misplaced the url for them. But they would be thrilled to get anything you have. –The biggest treasure you have, though, out of all that research is for yourself. You know where you came from and probably know some of the whys about your own life. That is a great treasure! I was adopted as a young child and have had to dig to find information. I finally did, but it answers a lot of questions for me. Thank you for your post.

Pops
Guest
Pops

Another place you could store the fabulous history you’ve assembled, including photos and stories, is FamilySearch.org. Membership is free, and there are a great many resources for doing additional research.

Deanna Russell
Member
Coins: 63
Deanna Russell

I’ve been thinking about this since I read the other day. To be honest I was inclined to agree with you. Then the other day a cousin that I haven’t seen for 50+ years sent me 2 photos asking if I could identify . Luckily my 92 year old mother was able to help. The first was the wedding picture of my maternal grandparents. The second was my grandmother’s parents, my great grandparents. My husband came in the room and saw me with tears streaming down my face and asked what was the matter. I explained they were tears of joy because I had never met them or seen a photo of them before. If someone hadn’t scanned them and sent to me I would never have known and neither would by cousin. You never know who might be interested now or at some distant date in the future.

Janell Johnson
Member
Coins: 33
Janell Johnson

I’m kind of a history lover. I love a good story, and honestly, every life has an interesting tale to tell. It just needs to be told. One of the best ways for it to be told is in photos. I recently scanned some old letters from an army buddy of a man I barely knew. My father’s brother had passed away, and when his wife’s brother, John, died, she called us, (not their blood relatives) in to help with his personal effects. Then she died. We had all these things that had nothing to do with us, and largely we eliminated it. But the letters from old friends and so on were so interesting, particularly those from the Korean War. This war buddy told of how cold their tents were and how they huddled around an old potbellied stove to stay warm, how he missed going bowling with my departed un-relative, and talked about what he looked forward to when he got home. He wished John and his mother a Merry Christmas and sent love. I saw the whole scene in my mind’s eye. And I wished for a photo of this man. I wanted to experience the conditions there in Korea with him. I didn’t even have a full name for the guy. But if I did, I’d have tried to track him down and tell him Thank you for his service.

We never know who our photos will impact, and with services like photo memories on websites like FamilySearch.org where our photos are attached to our names and stories about them can be uploaded, we never know whose life will be positively influenced by them.

Just my two cents, but I love seeing what was and the life within photos.

Rita McKenzie
Guest
Rita McKenzie

In answer to Jennie’s concern about who cares, that’s just the point, she doesn’t know who might care down the road. I’ve been scanning photos of my great grandparents who were the first of that generation to arrive in the US. My regret is that my parents didn’t let me know about these photos so I could have asked questions about them.

I value my time and I would feel very remiss if I didn’t help to pass along these wonderful pieces of history. I have photos of them on a trip to Kansas in the 1930’s and standing in front of an Oregon Trail marker.

I’ve put the photos on my website and sent the link to older family members hoping to obtain identification of people I didn’t know. It is working so far. I’ve heard from several people helping to complete the puzzle.

I feel like a historian or biographer documenting what life was like for my family. A worthwhile endeavor.

Barbara Tien
Guest
Barbara Tien

History is written by those taking the time to write it down. Your work, if carefully cited and documented will become the reference material for future generations. Bravo.

Lynn A Dosch
Guest
Lynn A Dosch

A couple of thoughts based on my research –
1. I get a lot more info from a photo than just people/names. Buildings, locations, dress are all clues to life in a period of time. I look at the photo albums in the library of my family’s town and learn about the times my ancestors lived from these photos and stories. So, one possibility beyond one’s personal use would be to contribute these to some sort of archive. If the photos are from a specific area, a local library would probably love to have these for their collection of local history.
2. You never know when a branch of your family might want to learn about your family. I’ve learned about my branch of the family from contacts with more distant cousins. Having photos is always helpful. Your branch may be small, but you are one of hundreds of descendants from only a few generations back.
3. That said, with no one to inherit and carry on the family story, I would severely edit the photo collection, digitizing only those photos that show important moments – weddings, christenings, family portraits and the like with perhaps a few photos that tell stories, show locations or other info important to the family character.
4. Have you thought of writing up your family’s story, as you know it, as a narrative, adding photos to illustrate it? Offer this to genealogy societies, libraries, or other archives of the family locations. It’s a service whose impact you will likely never know, but it could be considerable.
5. If the idea of digitizing everything is too daunting, more than you’d like to take on, could you at least do something smaller – culling the collection and adding notes of date, names and locations where known and then offer the collection to some genealogy archive as suggested above.

Mark Wentworth
Member
Coins: 84
Mark Wentworth

This is a worthwhile question to ask before investing hundreds of hours into a scanning project. I wrote about my personal motivations for scanning and cataloguing 2k photographs in this SYEL blog post.

In short, I did so without thoughts of genealogy or archiving; I simply wanted to see them regularly, something that is unlikely to happen when they are in a shoe box.

If you place a few digital photoframes around your house with each showing a new picture every thirty seconds then you are likely to see any given photo every few weeks. This is even the case with large collections of tens of thousands of images. My wife and I call our digital photoframe meTV because it’s like television but it’s all about me. We joke that it will always give us something to talk about. I write a caption for each photo (and also for all the digital photos that I take), which ties in with Mr. Malling’s comments about stories below.

However, when it comes to family photos that I didn’t take I am much more selective: if I don’t want to look at it myself then I don’t scan it. Furthermore, I am wary of my own pictures being diluted by those of others. Naturally, genealogists and family archivists (such as my mother) will have their own criteria for scanning in prints. In some cases it may be easier to spend 2 minutes scanning in a picture than 5 minutes trying to decide whether to scan it.