76 A Multi-generational Photo Collection

Overview. Your grandfather has died, at age 91, and under his bed is a suitcase containing several photo albums with a few hundred photos. Some of them have captions, but many do not. What do you do with them?

Your first thought was to create a digital photo archive of Grandpa’s collection so that you and all your relatives could see them, and you would also want to generate accurate captions where none exist. Since you have an extensive digital photo collection of your own in a web-based application, perhaps you can combine the two collections to create a multi-generational photo organizing system.

This project involves digitization, archiving, social media issues, and negotiations with and collecting information from other family members who might have different views about what to do.

What is being organized? It is easy to find advice about how to digitize old photos, but there are more choices than you might think. What resolution and format should you use? Should you do the work yourself or send Grandpa’s precious photos to a service and take the risk that they might get lost? Should you do any restoration or enhancement of the photos as part of the digitization process?[1]

More fundamental design questions concern the scope and scale of the organizing system. If you are digitizing Grandpa’s photos and combining them with yours, you are skipping a generation. Should not you also include photos from your parents and the rest of Grandpa’s children? That generation has both printed photos and digital ones, but it is not as comfortable with computers as you are, and their digital photos are stored less systematically on a variety of CD-ROM, DVDs, flash memory sticks, and SD photo cards, making the digitizing and organizing work more complicated. Do these differences in storage media reflect an intentional arrangement that needs to be preserved? And what about that box full of Super 8 cartridges and VHS tapes with family videos on them, and the audio cassettes with recordings made at long-ago family gatherings?

A family history management system that includes many different resource types is a much bigger project than the one you contemplated when you first opened Grandpa’s suitcase. It is easier to consider using separate but related organizing systems for each media type, because there are many web-based applications you could use. In fact, there are far too many choices of web applications for you to consider. You might compare some for their functionality and usability, but given the long expected lifetime of your organizing system there are more critical considerations: whether the site is likely to last as long as your collection and, if it does not, how easily you can export your resources and resource descriptions.[2]

Why is it being organized? The overall goal of preserving Grandpa’s photos needs no justification, but is preservation the primary goal? Or, rather, is to enable access to the images for far-flung family members? Or is it to create a repository for family photos as they continue to be produced? Alternatively, is it less about the images themselves and perhaps more about collecting family history information contained in the photos, thus making the collection of metadata (accurate information about when and where the photo was taken, who is in it, etc.) most important?

These decisions determine requirements for the interactions that the photo organizing system must support, but the repertoire of interactions is mostly determined by the choice of photo storage and sharing application. Some applications combine photo storage in a cloud-based repository tied to a very powerful set of digital photography tools, but this functionality comes with complexity that would overwhelm your less technology-savvy relatives. They would be happy just to be able to browse and search for photos.

How much is it being organized? Because you realize that a carefully designed set of categories and a controlled tagging vocabulary will enable precise browsing and search, you chose an application that supports grouping and tagging. But not everyone should be allowed to group or tag photos, and maybe some of the more distant relatives can view photos but not add any.

Will your categories and tags include all of those that Grandpa used when he arranged pictures in albums and made notes on the back of many of them? Do you want to allow annotations? Maybe this is a picture from a vacation; if you go back to the same place, do you want to create an association between the pictures?

Do not forget to keep Grandpa’s original albums in a safe place, not under a bed somewhere.

When is it being organized? Once you create your categories and tags, you can require people to use them when they add new photos to the collection. Perhaps the existing resource descriptions can be completed or enhanced as a collective activity at a family reunion. Do not put this off too longthe people who can identify Grandpa’s sister Gladys, her second husband, and his sister in an uncaptioned photo are getting on in years.

How or by whom is it being organized? You have taken on the role of the editor and curator, but you cannot do everything and having a group of people involved will probably result in more robust organizing. A group can also better handle sticky situations like what to do if people get divorced or have a falling out with other family members; do pictures taken of or by them get deleted?

Other considerations. Maintenance of this collection for an indefinite time raises the important issue or a succession plan for the curator. If only one name is on the account and only that person knows the password, you run the risk of losing access to the photos if that person dies. One of Grandpa’s mistakes was dying without clearly specifying his intentions for his photo collection, so whatever you decide you should document carefully and include a continuity plan when you are no longer the curator.[3]

  1. (Ctein 2010) and (Taylor 2010) are popular guides for photo digitization and restoration.

  2. For example, http://web.appstorm.net/roundups/media-roundups/top-20-photo-storage-and-sharing-sites/ reviews 20 photo storage and sharing sites and http://photo-book-review.toptenreviews.com/ compares 10 sites for creating printed albums from digital photos in case you want to “round trip” from Grandpa’s photos and print photo books for family members.

  3. (Herbst 2009) is a thoughtful legal primer on the novel property, jurisdiction, and terms of service complexities in gaining access to accounts of deceased people. A popular treatment about what has come to be called the “digital afterlife” is (Carroll and Romano 2011).


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The Discipline of Organizing: 4th Professional Edition Copyright © 2020 by Robert J. Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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