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Earlier this year, Lain Ehmann gave us some great tips for organizing digital photographs. But what about all those old family snapshots? If you, or one of your clients, has inherited a collection, you may be wondering what to do with them, and even where to begin, so I’ve invited Lain back to share some more of her expertise on organizing inherited photos.

Once we reach a certain age, we begin to have to deal with some new arrivals in our lives. They appear seemingly out of nowhere; where the day before we had stretches of unoccupied space, now we have these surprise visitors. We know we’ve earned them, but we’re still not completely sure how to deal with them.

No, I’m not talking about wrinkles; I’m talking about inherited photos!

Seriously, some bell must have rung on some celestial timer somewhere. In the past few months, I’ve become the proud owner of shoeboxes, albums, and manila envelopes full of photos, some decades old, mostly unlabeled. I’m sure that if you don’t already have a few of these stashes of your own, it won’t be long before your Great Aunt Gladys or your Second Cousin Thrice Removed Albert bestows a few boxes on you.

So when we get these unexpected gifts, we have a choice: Do we treat them as the treasure they are or do we stick them in a cupboard or closet somewhere and wait until we can pass them on, like an unwanted holiday fruitcake we’re anxious to regift to someone else?

You know what my answer is… these photos are gold! So please follow these steps for organizing inherited photos and giving them the respect and love they deserve.


See exactly what you have: photos only, old-style scrapbooks with photos and memorabilia, magnetic photo albums, etc. Just knowing that there is an end to the seemingly endless piles of photos makes the task seem less daunting.


The absolute worst thing for your old photos is the magnetic photo albums that were so popular in the 1970s and ’80s. They destroy photos! If you have photos in these albums, get them out immediately. Use dental floss to remove the photos (slide it underneath a loose edge and gently work it back and forth in a “sawing” motion to lift the photo from the adhesive).

Unfortunately, the old-school scrapbooks with photo-tab corners aren’t much better for precious memories. The high acid content of the paper will eat away at photos and other souvenirs, so get those goodies out! You can store the photos in photo boxes or acid-free flat memorabilia boxes.


One of the most challenging issues with inherited photos is sorting them out. We tend to think that we need to know exactly when the photo was taken, to the exact hour and day. Not so! When reviewing your photos, it will be sufficient to know the general timeframe, within a year or two, or even a decade. So your first step in sorting is to divide the photos by decade, or more precisely by year if you can get that information. Don’t get too caught up in the precise year; knowing that the photo was taken “circa 1935” is much better than having a basket of photos you haven’t even begun to sort!

This may take a few separate sittings to accomplish, depending on how many photos you have. If you don’t have a weekend to devote to this task, set aside a few minutes each evening while your family is watching TV – grab a handful and sort while watching “Hoarders.” 🙂

You may want to place your sorted photos in plastic tubs or shoeboxes for temporary storage. Of course, label the outside of these boxes or bins so you know at a glance what’s where!


After you’ve sorted, choose a starting point, either the present-day or the oldest photo. It doesn’t matter, as long as you have a concrete place to start. Then you’re going to grab a stack of post-it notes and a pen, and a bunch of manila envelopes or a photo box with dividers.

Starting at your preferred “end,” start writing what you DO know about the photos on a sticky note. Aim for the who-what-when-where for start. Work through your photos a bit at a time. Based on the number of photos you’ve inherited, this could take some time. Don’t get discouraged! Just keep chipping away at it, making progress. If you have access to someone who can help you with the unknowns, hand them a pen and put them to work!


After you label the photos, you can store them in photo or memorabilia boxes, or you may want to display them in a manner that others can appreciate and enjoy them. Use acid-free photo albums that are readily available online or at discount stores. If you’re a scrapbooker, you can pull favorite photos and the accompanying stories and scrapbook the original photo, or scan and reprint it, scrapbooking the copy.

Relax! It may take you a weekend, a month, or a year. But by following these steps you can chip away at what seemed at first like an interminable project.

About today’s guest blogger:

Learn more about Lain Ehmann here.

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