Category Archives: Commentaries

Archivist’s View on Baby Milestone Photos

I’ve been seeing more and more of those “baby milestone” (or “baby month-by-month” or “baby growth-progress” or “hey look how much bigger I am!” or whatever you want to call them) photos, especially on Facebook, lately.

I’ve seen a lot of creative things that I would never have thought to do. (Seeing as I don’t have kids, it hasn’t come up, though I suppose some of them might have worked for my cats when they were kittens, had I thought of it…but alas, I think that ship has now sailed! Much to everyone’s disappointment, I’m sure.)

Anyway, I think these “watch me grow” baby photos are great, and I enjoy seeing them. But as an archivist and family historian, I happened to notice that most of them don’t always seem to include some really obvious basic information that I would really like to see on them: name, date, and age.

I was particularly baffled by the missing names and dates, especially if a photo included a lot of other information written on a little sign or chalkboard (love the chalkboard idea!), such as: weight, length, likes & dislikes, cool new tricks, etc. Although, some of them don’t have much writing at all—just a sticker on baby’s chest or back with the number or months or just a stuffed animal for scale (with the months indicated somewhere in a text description rather than in the photo itself).

I talked to some mom friends about this — in the course of asking them if I could use their baby’s photos for this blog post (we’ll get to that in a minute — didn’t want to completely lose your attention by putting all the cute baby photos at the top) — and I did get some enlightening answers:

Some of them plan to put all of the baby photos into a photo book (say “the first year”), which obviously would have baby’s name and info printed in it, but just not in the photo images themselves. Definitely a cool idea.

Someone else mentioned that some moms don’t like to put their baby’s name out there on the Internet. OK, I get that. I can see how that kind of thing might lead to “creepers” or even identity thieves.

But if I’m looking through your random box of photos (or, God willing, a drive full of your digital photos) 50 years from now, and all I have are these original images without any explanation, what I would love to find is: a name (even just a first name), date of the photo (including year), and the age captured in the image itself. That would be awesome. As an archivist or family historian, that would go a long way towards making sure that I was able to identify this baby — especially if, as we’ll see in the example photos below, you have more than one baby and they bear a strong resemblance to one another!

OK, that’s all I’m going to say about it, because I certainly don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing anyone. I am thrilled with all of you who are making this effort to take the month-by-month (or whatever you call them) baby pics! And thank you for sharing them — both on Facebook in general and (more specifically) for this blog. But it was just something that struck me as interesting, and I thought maybe some of you hadn’t thought about the 50-years-from-now-unlabeled-photo-in-a-box thing yet. (After all, I’m sure a lot of you are kind of sleep-deprived, particularly in the beginning, and busy all the time! All the more reason I applaud you for taking the time to do these cute photos!)

So now, I’ll get to what everyone actually came here to see—-the baby pics. (To reduce any creeper danger, I’m only using the mommies’ first names! Thanks again, moms!)

The two photos below are of Gina’s babies use the “stuffed animal for scale” technique but no writing in the photograph itself. She makes a photo book for each child. (I love how the stuffed animal starts out so much bigger than the baby and then shrinks…oh wait. Haha!)

Gina's Baby #1

Gina’s Baby #1

Gina's Baby #2

Gina’s Baby #2

Sarah’s been using two techniques: both the stuffed-animal-for-scale, as well as the chalkboard method. I love that she has the date and all those other little details on her chalkboard. She also said she was making a photo book.

Sarah's baby, stuffed animal

Sarah’s baby, stuffed animal

Sarah's baby, chalkboard photo

Sarah’s baby, chalkboard photo

Beth B. is also using a chalkboard — a really cute chalkboard at that!

Beth B.'s baby

Beth B.’s baby

Beth P. made a sign—and she included the date, with year! Hooray!

Beth P.'s baby

Beth P.’s baby

Mollie has been doing monthly photo comparisons between her two babies — putting the current monthly photo for the younger one next to the same monthly photo from the older one. Love it! And wow do they look alike!

Mollie's babies

Mollie’s babies

One more thing— In the course of attempting find information on the Internet about these baby-growth-photos, I found this article/post with some more cute baby-growth-photo ideas (some of which I haven’t seen my friends doing) and this one about baby time-lapse videos (which are a bit of a different thing but the goal is similar).

Special thanks to Gina, Beth B., Beth P., Mollie, and Sarah for letting me use your babies’ photos to help illustrate this post! Couldn’t have done it without you — well, maybe I could have, but it wouldn’t have been filled with cute.

A few snippets of Harvey D. Little’s poetry

Harvey D. Little (1803-1833) was a poet and newspaper man in the Columbus, Ohio, area. He was married to Mary Howard (1809-1891), daughter of Horton Howard. (More biographical information on both of them can be found in the previous post. Or, read Coggeshall’s assessment of Harvey D. Little from The Poets and Poetry of the West (1860).)

I found some examples of Harvey’s poetry in the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection, and I just thought these were too cool not to share. (And I’m not even really a big poetry lover.)

I’ll post images and transcriptions. (Transcriptions were done by me.) To see the original handwritten poems, click on the images to view them larger on Flickr. (Also, notice the indentations in the originals; I typed them in, but they wouldn’t stay in the WordPress editor.)

All of these poems are from Sarah (Howard) Forrer‘s Album of “Original and Selected Pieces” of Poetry & Miscellany (Box 5, Folder 5), Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection (MS-018), Dayton Metro Library (Dayton, Ohio).

Without further ado, here are the poems:


This first one, Harvey wrote for his sister-in-law Sarah (Howard) Forrer, shortly after her marriage (1826) and the birth of her first child (Elizabeth, in 1827). I believe this poem was written in Harvey’s own handwriting, based on a few of his letters (also in the collection).

“To Mrs. Sarah H. Forrer” (1828)
By Harvey D. Little

I saw thee in thy maiden prime.– The rose of youth
Was freshly blooming on thy polish’d cheek,
Whose smile of innocence, and shades of meek
Expression mingled.– Even peerless Truth,
Was scarce more lovely in her pristine state.
Thou seem’d to us, some Peri from above,
That but to look on was to praise and love;–
Such was thy being,– such our changless fate.

Again I saw thee– when the bridal crown
Was gaily shining on thy polish’d brow,
And thy soft lips had breath’d the sacred vow,
That gave thee to another.– There stole down,
Thy cheek, a tear,– but not of sorrow,– no!
Affection’s fount was full to overflowing,
Thy heart’s warm rapture could not hide its glowing:
Thou didst not dream, for once, of future woe.

And yet again I saw thee.– Thy rich charms
Were heighten’d by a more majestic grace:
A lovely infant smil’d upon thy face,
As it lay fondling in thy guardian arms.
A mother’s hopes were in thy bosom; and her fears
Sometimes o’ershadow’d them,– as sombre care
Can cast a chill on all that’s bright and fear!–
Mayst thou ne’er have a real cause for tears!

Harvey D. Little
Columbus, Sept. 8th, 1828

To Mrs. Sarah H. Forrer, pg. 1 of 2

To Mrs. Sarah H. Forrer, pg. 1 of 2

. To Mrs. Sarah H. Forrer, pg. 2 of 2

Having the benefit of 150+ years of hindsight, I can’t help but be saddened a bit by the poem’s final line: “Mayst thou ne’er have a real cause for tears!” Sarah would outlive that baby by 13 years; she would lose two more children as children (her first son at age 8; a daughter at 1.5); she would lose her second (and by then only) son, as well as a son-in-law, within weeks of each other during the Civil War. Not to mention all the sorrow that befell the Howard/Little family in the years 1833-1834…


I think the handwriting on this one may be Sarah’s. It’s a little hard to tell.

“Twilight Hour” (undated)
By Harvey D. Little

Twilight hour in month gray,
Herald of departing day,
Form’d by him who made the sun,
Ere creations work was done–
Oh! how dear thou art to me!
Clothed in vestal purity.

Twilight hour! thy pensiveness
Sooths my bosoms deep distress
Lulls to sleep each sordid woe,–
Gives to hope a brighter glow.–
Makes each passing scene appear
Far more pleasing, far more dear.

Twilight hour thy charms impart
A mournful sweetness to the heart,
By recalling smiles and tears,
Joys and griefs of far fled years:
Years that swiftly past away,
Joys that hastened to decay.

Twilight hour! in coming days,
Other bards may sing thy praise,
Love thy pensive charms which I
In the grassy tomb shall lie.
Far from sorrow far from pain
Far from every earthly stain.

There the storms of life are o’er–
There the wretched weep no more–
While the spirit wings its flight
To a world of endless light
Where bright orbs have ever shown
And in twilight hour is known.

Twilight Hour, pg. 1 of 2

Twilight Hour, pg. 1 of 2


Twilight Hour, pg. 2 of 2

Twilight Hour, pg. 2 of 2

I just love this one; it has a good rhythm, and I admit, I’ve always preferred poems that rhyme. In a way, it’s almost eerie, knowing as I do that within a few short years of writing it, the poet himself “In the grassy tomb shall lie. / Far from sorrow far from pain / Far from every earthly stain.” Harvey was taken by cholera in 1833 at the age of 30.


This last poem I want to share is signed “M. Little,” which I’m pretty sure is Harvey’s wife Mary (Howard) Little. It doesn’t say “by” M. Little, but I can’t find this poem anywhere. So I’m not sure whether Mary wrote it herself or if it was simply one that she liked and requested to copy it into Sarah’s album. I believe the original handwriting is Mary’s, based on other examples and letters written by Mary.

Untitled (undated)
[Author not specified]

Cling to the world in rosy health,
And drink its sweet alluring pleasures
Bow at the golden shrine of wealth,
And worship time’s deceitful treasures.
But know the hour of pain will come
And sickness bring its cloud of sorrow,
To wrap in gloom our happy home,
And quench the sunlight of tomorrow.

Twine ye the green bay wreath of joy
And bind it on the brow of gladness,
And let no warning voice alloy,
No whispering spirit breathe of sadness.
For full should be his need of bliss,
Where hold on time so soon must sever:
Who wins no other world but this,
And with it loses all forever.

Pale sickness with its train of woes
Misfortunes, penury, and grief
The mournful fate which autumn throws
Ov’er the sere and faded leaf,
The good man’s doom on earth may be,
And he may struggle long with fate,
But sweet’s the rest his soul shall see,
When worlds lie wreck’d and desolate.

M. Little

Untitled poem

Untitled poem

Another somewhat gloomy poem, but again, I like it. It’s undated, so I have to wonder whether Mary copied this poem down before or after all the sadness that befell her little – er, Little – family.

“But know the hour of pain will come / And sickness bring its cloud of sorrow, / To wrap in gloom our happy home, / And quench the sunlight of tomorrow.”

In the summer of 1833, Mary lost her husband, two children, and both her parents in a cholera epidemic; the following spring, she lost her remaining two children to scarlet fever. She would eventually marry again and have 4 more children (one of whom died in the Civil War, but the other 3 grew to old age). I’m sure there were plenty of happy times in her life, too, but when I think of Mary (Howard) Little Affleck, I remember a woman who endured many, many sorrows.


I hope you enjoyed the poems! I know I did. 🙂

Hidden mothers, post-mortem, and 1940s Italian-Americans

(Now there’s a weird blog title for ya; how the heck do those things fit together? Well, read on, my friend, and I’ll tell you what I’m getting at…)

A day or two ago, a friend of mine posted a link to a blog post she’d found about “Hidden mothers in Victorian portraits” (and its follow-up, “More hidden mothers in Victorian photography: post-mortem photographs or not?”) by Chelsea Nichols.

I found these posts ridiculously interesting (ha, play on words of the blog title) for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, they are quite visually interesting, as they include a lot of photographs to illustrate the subject of the posts: mothers (or whoever) hiding under blankets, curtains, etc., to hold children steady in Victorian-era portraits. Remember, back in Ye Olde Dayes, the process of capturing a photograph was not instantaneous; so you had to hold still until the exposure was finished. Not so easy to get little ones to do this; hence, the mothers in the pictures.

Another reason the subject piqued my interest is that it reminded me of a couple of similar photographs that I have seen before. (Oh, that archivist brain : always pulling things up from the back-files of my mind…)

One of the photos I thought of actually fits the description of what’s being discussed — well, sans blanket:

PEIRCE, Howard Forrer 13 from Oversize Photo #1924 by Dayton Metro Library Local History, on Flickr

Howard Forrer Peirce (and his mother?), from Oversize Photo #1924 by Dayton Metro Library Local History, on Flickr

That’s Howard Forrer Peirce (born 1865) and, presumably, his mother. If it was meant to be a photo of the two of them, it’s not very good, since mom is mostly hidden (much to my chagrin, as an archivist, since that’s the only pic we have of her! –if it is indeed his mother, which I’m pretty sure it is, based on what her sisters looked like!–). So I suppose it is probably a situation of trying to get the boy to cooperate and/or hold him still while the photo was exposed.

The other photo that came to mind is actually a lot more similar to the photos in the posts. But it is not from the Victorian era; it’s from the early 1940s:

Baby and hidden mother, ca. 1941

Baby and hidden mother, ca. 1941

The baby in this photo is one of my aunts, and the person under the sheet is, more than likely, my grandmother. At first I wasn’t totally sure if therewassomeone under the sheet, or if they just draped it over a chair as a backdrop, but then I noticed how the sheet seems to be “holding” the baby, under the arms…so there must be a person under there.

But why? Why in the 1940s? Presumably, they were using a camera that was capable of taking an instantaneous photograph. So I guess they must have just thought it would be a fun thing to do, stylistically. (Unfortunately, anyone who would have been around — and old enough to know what was going on — the day the photo was taken…is now deceased, so I can’t ask them.)

Then, there’s one more thing I want to mention. When I was first thinking about writing this post, all I was thinking about was the “hidden mother” pictures I had seen.

But then I got to thinking: This is the second Victorian photography trend I have seen duplicated by my Italian-American ancestors in the 1940s. That’s…interesting.

Remember the post-mortem photographs I found in my grandfather’s photographs?

Now, before I go any further with my thoughts and wonderments, let me just say that I realize it would be bad science, and bad history, and just bad in general, to pretend like I could make any gross generalizations about an entire group of people or a practice, based on a handful of isolated examples.

But…it’s not going to stop me from wondering if this could, in fact, illustrate some sort of a legitimate historical trend.

Sometimes, we see something that looks cool — e.g., in photography — and we seek to replicate it, simply for the sake of “art”, without regard for the rhyme or reason behind why the thing we are replicating may have happened or been done out of necessity in the original work.

For instance, why is everyone obsessed with Instagram? Don’t they know that the original “retro” photos they are seeking to replicate look all yellow and weird because of the subpar photographic processes of the 1970s? No, they just think it looks cool, so they take a perfectly good (new) digital photo and intentionally make it look degraded…for the sake of “art”.

Similarly, I wonder if my grandparents saw older photographs of babies being held by mothers under sheets and thought, “Hey, that is a neat way to photograph a baby; let’s replicate that.” Maybe they didn’t realize why the mothers had to hold the babies (although I’m still not sure why they had to hide); or maybe it didn’t matter either way, but they just wanted to create something “retro” (before “retro” was cool — or even a term!).

Same thing with the post-mortem photos my grandfather took of his parents. People used to do that (especially in the Victorian era) because taking photogrpahs was less common then, and the deceased person might never have been photographed before, thus making the post-mortem photo your “last chance” to capture their likeness in photographic form. I wonder if my grandpa had seen some of those type of photographs and just thought, “Hey, I should do that,” when his parents died. I have seen several photographs of my grandfather’s parents — when they were alive — so I know such photos existed and were in his possession; it’s not like he had no others.

And here’s where my stab at bad history comes in:  If they were taking those pictures because they wanted to replicate others they had seen, I wonder if socio-economics had anything to do with it all.

Now, just stick with me a minute here.

The Italian immigrants of the early 1900s (like my ancestors) tended to be poorer (at least initially) than many other Americans. Being not-so-well-off (which in many cases is a great understatement) is probably why most of them left all they’d even known and came to great Land of Opportunity in the first place.

And okay, so, people (and dare I say “civilizations”) that are lagging a bit behind in a variety of areas, like technology, might tend not to have the latest-and-greatest advancements — especially since a lot of those were being churned out in the United States back then, not in backhills of northern Italy, where my relatives were from.

I wonder: did the photographers in rural Tuscany still use photographic processes that required holding still for a long time, later than most American photographers? Might my grandfather, who lived in Italy until the mid-1930s, have seen a lot more of those “hidden mother” photographs than most young men in the 1940s had?

And, as for the post-mortem photos : if things were “worse” in Italy in the early 1900s than they were in America — after all, Italians came to the USA to find work and a “better life,” not vice versa — wouldn’t that likely include people being generally poorer? And when you’re poor, what can you not afford? Well, probably “luxuries” like owning a camera or visiting a professional photographer more than every great once in a while. So it makes me wonder if those “last chance” post-mortem photographs might have been more common, up through a later date (year), in places with a greater concentration of poor people.

We typically associate these styles of photographs — the “hidden mother” and the post-mortem — with the Victorian era in America. But consider that poorer communities (such as, in my example, early-1900s rural Italy) might have still had some of the same issues (older technology that required standing still for photos; greater likelihood that the deceased had never been photographed because it was too expensive to take photos willy-nilly like we do today) that were the root causes of those “odd” styles of Victorian photos.

And if we sometimes mimic what we know, what we’ve seen, what our friends and relatives are doing or have done or did in the pretty recent past, I can imagine how it might have happened that my Italian-American grandparents ended up essentially duplicating some things that were popular (in America) decades before they themselves were even actually born. (Meanwhile, I’ve never seen such things in the collections of American-born people from the same era.)

Like I said, this is completely unscientific and not good history either. But it was a thing that made me go, “Huh, that’s weird.” So I thought I’d just wonder out loud.

Has anyone else seen any “hidden mother” or post-mortem photos from the 1940s?

99 Years of Dayton Photographers

How does anyone ever have an original idea anymore? Obviously, some people manage to do so, because new things still keep coming along. And yet, it seems like most of the time, whenever I think, “There really oughtta be X,” there already is X, and I just hadn’t found it yet.

A recent example of this phenomenon occurred to me recently, with regard to an historical listing of Dayton photographers.

For the past few months, I have been processing the Thresher-McCann manuscript collection. In addition to loose papers and scrapbooks, the collection includes 260 (yes, exactly 260 – I just finished numbering them yesterday) photographs, the majority of which are unidentified. From the very few identified ones, I have been able to “tentatively” identify some of the people in others. (I have become pretty adept at recognizing Mary and Laura Thresher, but that’s about it. I don’t know the rest of the people from Adam. Well, okay, unless it’s woman; then I don’t know her from Eve.)

However, many of the photographs have the photographer’s name, city, and sometimes street address printed on them somewhere.

Sometimes on the front:

Appleton and Hollinger (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0045)

Appleton and Hollinger (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0045)


Grossman and Owings (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0047)

Grossman and Owings (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0047)


Bowersox (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0046)

Bowersox (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0046)

Sometimes on the back:

A. Yount (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0176)

A. Yount (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0176)


Roger's Portraits (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0048)

Roger’s Portraits (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0048)


M. Wolfe (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0049)

M. Wolfe (Dayton, Ohio) (ms036_0049)

And sometimes, the photorapher’s name is not even on the portrait, per se, but is written on one of those horribly acidic, construction-paper-feeling folders that old photographs are often stored in. (So if the photo came in a yucky folder or envelope, check for — and record — any useful info before casting that awful thing aside!)

I’ve actually elected to organize the unidentified photographs according to state, city, and photographer’s name, because it seemed like the most logical way to hopefully get photographs that originally went together, to remain together, not knowing who any of the people are.

As archivists know, one of the tasks in describing materials is to (hopefully) identify the date(s) of the materials, either from a given date (woohoo! I love when things are already dated!) or to make an educated guess if possible (which you would either put in brackets and/or add some relative words — e.g., circa, about, approximately, before, after, etc.).

So, putting those last two paragraphs together, you get the thought that kept going through my mind : Man, it would be awesome if I had an index to Dayton photographers, where I could look up the photographer’s name alphabetically and get the listings (hopefully with the different addresses of their various studios over the years), along with the dates when they operated at each location —- which could then be used to establish an approximate time frame for the photograph(s) in question.

Once I finished organizing the photographs, I finally got around to checking the library catalog to see whether we already owned such a book. Failing that, I was going to ask around to my co-workers and Dayton archives colleagues, to find out whether such a thing existed (and maybe Dayton library just didn’t have it for some reason). And failing THAT, I was prepared to roll up my sleeves, cozy up with the Dayton city directories, and produce the thing myself.

Well, lo and behold — the thing does already exist. Of course. Ha!  I’m not sorry that someone has already done all that work for me; it’s just another one of those things — it figures that this awesome idea was already had by someone — apparently Richard D. Fullerton…before I was even born. Ha!

The index I am referring to is 99 Years of Dayton Photographers (1982) by Richard D. Fullerton.

We have several copies of the book at the Dayton Metro Library — unfortunately for you who may wish to borrow it, they are all non-circulating, so you’ll have to use it in the library (all copies live at Main) [but some other local libraries have it too] — so I retrieved one and set about trying to narrow down a time frame for some of the undated Dayton photographs (such as those above).

The book has a helpful introduction. Fullerton lists the sources that he used (including city directories, census records, photographs themselves, and others), and he also cites those sources throughout the book, to tell where he got a particular piece of information about a name, date, or location.

Fullerton also gives information in the introduction about the approximate years of use for different kinds of photographs, also identifying the photo process’s hey day, which can help with dating photographs as well.

Having archival training and a copy of Ritzenthaler & Vogt-O’Connor’s photo preservation book, aka my photo archives Bible, I already had a pretty good idea of those approximate time periods. But, it was a great idea to include them, since some photographers worked for many years in Dayton (*cough*Bowersox*cough*), and so simply having the dates of the shop didn’t narrow it down much.

Between knowing which types of photographs were popular when, and having access to Fullerton’s book, I was able to established somewhat more useful dates — okay, anything is more useful than “Undated” — for the Dayton imprint photographs. Now, unfortunately, most of the unidentified photos in the collection weren’t actually made in Dayton, so Fullerton’s book can’t help me with those.

I don’t suppose anyone knows of a book like this for Cincinnati? 🙂

In any event, I am pleased that I found the Fullerton book. It definitely saved me a lot of work. (Now, don’t get me wrong, a bunch of completely unidentified photographs don’t usually warrant searching all those city directories just to get a slightly-more-useful-than-“undated” date that I can stick in a finding aid. I mean all the work that I would have done creating an index of long-lasting usefulness — like Fullerton did!)

One more thing : Even having those narrower dates isn’t necessarily all that helpful to me, someone who doesn’t know the names or the faces of the unidentified people. I think it would be a lot more useful to genealogists — if you have a photo, and you know who it is, but you’re wondering, “How old is great-great-grandma in this picture?” Or, “Could that be Great-Uncle James? Was he even still alive then?” Or….you get the idea. But hey, sometimes having a place and an approximate date and a location could narrow down the other unknowns quite a lot for you, depending on how your family history played out.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed this little jaunt into one of my “there should really be…if there’s not, I’m so going to…oh wait, there already is…okay, good…using that now” moments.

Save your digital photos, Part 2: How I do it

In Part 1 of “Save your digital photos,” I listed a number of reasons why you should be backing up your digital photos.

And I mentioned LOCKSS, which I will reiterate and emphasize again here, is the TLDNR take-away message I want you to get from both Parts 1 and 2. If you read or remember nothing else, please just always remember this rule of thumb in regards to your digital files, and (assuming you follow it) you should be good to go:

LOCKSS = Lots of copies keeps stuff safe.

Also in Part 1, I mentioned this OHS blog post with “Tips for Saving Your Digital Photographs”. My own personal digital photo preservation routine seems to fall within the parameters they recommend, so I thought maybe I would share the specifics of it here, to give an idea of what a home user might do to ensure that their digital photogrpahs will both exist, and be accessible, for a long time.


And now, for some minutiae.

The following are the details of my own personal digital preservation regimen. (So, to be clear, this is what I do at home, not in my professional capacity as an archivist at the library.)

My way is certainly not the only solution or even necessarily the best. But I feel that it has served me well in the past. I can confidently say, “If my laptop died tomorrow, I really wouldn’t be that upset about it, because I know all my stuff is safely stored in multiple places.”


Here is what I do, roughly broken down into steps:

Step 1: Download the photos.

At least once a month (I have a reminder set), I download the photos from my smart phone and my digital camera onto my computer’s hard drive. I usually leave the photos on the camera’s memory card, also, for about a month. For instance, at the end of May, I would copy all of May’s photos onto my hard drive, leave the a copy of the May photos on the camera, and delete the April photos still left on the camera. I usually dump this month’s photos into a virtual holding tank, a folder called (creatively enough) “New Pics,” until I am ready to organize them. (Don’t worry; I do the organizing pretty soon after the data dump. But I usually have to collect the images from two cameras and an iPhone before I start organizing, to make sure I have everything.)

Why do Step 1? Copying your photos from your camera devices onto your hard drive gives you a second copy of them and protects you from losing the photos if you lose your camera or phone. (I know some cell phones have “cloud” backup, but I bet your digital camera probably doesn’t.) However, this only works until the memory in your camera or phone fills up. You will need a more long-term solution (see Step 4+), also, but this is good for starters.

Step 2: Create & utilize named folders.

I have folders for each month (e.g., “2011-10 Oct”), with descriptively named folders for each event in that month. I usually use the ISO 8601 date and then a descriptive name, such as: “2011-12-25 Christmas.” If I have random pictures (no particular event), I just toss them into the appropriate month’s folder.

Why do Step 2? It’s easy to accumulate a lot of digital photos (since they are cheap and easy to create!), and they can become a jumbled, unmanageable mess pretty easily. Also, if you have photos from the same event but different cameras, the potentially different sequential file naming schemes might not keep them next to each other in your “All My Photos Ever” folder. Step 2 does not technically do anything to help preserve the images themselves, but it will help preserve the meaning of the photos. (Ever found a bunch of old photos and thought, “Gee, I wonder what was going on here?” or “Grandma looks so young; I wonder what year this was?” Yeah, thought so.)

Step 2b: Cull the collection.

Once you’ve got all the photos from a certain event in front of you, take a few minutes to delete any you don’t need or want. Delete pocket shots (the camera equivalent of “butt dialing“). At least consider deleting blurry ones and ones with really unfortunate facial expressions. If you have several shots that are nearly identical, consider choosing the best one and deleting the rest.

You could do this culling after Step 1 (file download) or after Step 3 (filenaming), but I think it makes the most sense after you’ve filed by event (so you can see everything together) but before you go to all the trouble of renaming everything.

Why do Step 2b? There are two good reasons to do this: #1 digital storage is pretty cheap these days, but it’s still not free; and #2 you won’t have to wonder “now which 2011 family Christmas photo did I decide was the best one?” every time you want it. (If you really want to keep all the shots even though it looks like a flipbook, you could mark the best one as “BEST” (so creative, I know) when filenaming (see step 3), but that doesn’t help you save storage space.)

A word of caution about Step 2b: On the flip side, don’t delete photos you actually want just to save space, unless you are really desperate. My husband fully supports my mass proliferation of photographs, reminding me: storage space is cheap.  So, if you really want it, find a way to keep it. (You can buy more CDs or a bigger hard drive; but once those photos are gone, they’re gone.)

Step 3: Create meaningful file names.

I change the generic photo filenames assigned by the camera to something more descriptive, which helps me find the image I want without having to look at every file. Again, I like the ISO 8601 date, the event, then the generically assigned file name (most cameras use a sequential numbering system so this keeps the photos in chronological order), and then sometimes info about the subject. For example: “2011-12-25 Christmas IMG_0099 opening gifts.jpg” or “2011-12-25 Christmas IMG_0100 Lisa Matt.jpg.” (Note: You should try to keep the file names short, because some operating systems have trouble with longer file names. I am not always good about keeping things short — you’ve read my blog, right? — so I am guilty of not doing this. But I still thought I ought to mention it.)

Meaningful folder and file names

Meaningful folder and file names


Okay, so you’ve got your photos from all your digital devices (go you!); you’ve organized them in relevant folders and given them meaningful filenames (woohoo!). Now, you want to make sure all that hard work doesn’t go to waste. You need to protect those image files against the many ways they can be lost (see Part 1).

If all else fails, remember LOCKSS: Lots of copies keeps stuff safe.

Step 4: Do regular external backups.

When I say “regular,” I mean pretty often. I do my backup of photos (as well as other files) once a week (another reminder is set).

And when I say “external,” I mean to another physical location besides your the hard drive to which you downloaded the photos in Step 1. I mean, create a regularly-updated second copy of your stuff somewhere. That “somewhere” could be an external hard drive, CDs, DVDs, cloud storage, USB drives, etc.

Personally, I don’t recommend CDs, DVDs, or USB drives (and do I even need to address floppy disks?) because they can go bad over time, and you have to remember to check them periodically (and possibly refresh them – which means, making copies on new disks/media to replace the old ones). I recommend using an external hard drive of some sort, because if you keep using the same drive every time to backup things, you will realize immediately when it goes bad because you are accessing it every week to make those backups. If you put your photos on a CD and throw it in a drawer, thinking, “Okay, there’s my backup for 2011,” then in a few years when your computer crashes, you might find that CD can’t be read anymore either. Then what? You just lost 2011’s photos.

By using a hard drive, which I will access frequently to make additional backups (thereby acting as a check to make sure it’s still working, without having to remember to check it for no other reason than checking it), I don’t have to remember the CDs (or DVDs or USB sticks or SD cards or whatever) that I stowed away years ago and hope they still work when I need them; or to remember to check them every 6-12 months or so.

Nevertheless, any backup media you choose to use is better than none at all. Because if you make any backup copies, there’s at least a chance they’ll still work when you need them. If you make no copies at all, I guarantee you will lose those photos when your computer/phone/camera dies.

In my case, I use an external hard drive system called a NAS — Network-Attached Storage — which has a two-disk RAID (redundant array of independent disks) configuration.

NAS (Network-Attached Storage)

NAS (Network-Attached Storage)

Without getting too technical, this means that I can backup my files over our home network to this little box that has two identical hard drives in it (in our case, 1 terabyte each). Although the box technically contains 2 TB of space, you can only fill up one disk’s worth of space – in my case, 1 TB – because the second disk exists solely to backup the first. So, in this way, I actually have a double backup going on. If one of the two disks goes bad, I still have a backup.

Why do Step 4? You need an external second copy of your files in case your first copy gets lost, stolen, destroyed, corrupted, or otherwise killed in some way.

Step 5: Keep an off-site backup.

Now, if you opted to go with cloud storage for your Step 4, where your photos are backed up over the Internet, then you may not need to do Step 5 also. Theoretically, anyone with any business running a cloud storage service should have your files protected in multiple ways, and obviously this storage is off-site because it is stored on the company’s servers in who-knows-where. So, if you used cloud storage for Step 4, you are probably covered on Step 5 also.

I do use online storage for part of my Step 5. I have an account at Smugmug, where I am able to backup an unlimited number of photos for $40 per year. The site has lots of cool features (and no, they aren’t paying me to promote them), but I mostly got the account for backup purposes. However, I have since implemented another off-site backup solution, since the cost for restoring all my images from Smugmug would be pretty high.

As my other off-site backup solution, I have a second pair of external hard drives (in addition to the ones in the NAS). I keep one of the drives at my house at any given time and make weekly backups to it, just like I do the NAS. The other drive is at my parents’ house, 100+ miles away. Whenever I visit my parents (usually every few months), I swap the two hard drives.

One of my off-site backup solutions

One of my off-site backup solutions

Why do Step 5? Keeping an off-site backup gives you an additional layer of protection against more types of loss. Let’s say you do Steps 1-4, but your backup is stored at your house, along with your computer. What if someone steals your computer and your external hard drive? What if your home is destroyed by a fire or natural disaster? If it’s a house fire, then storing your off-site backup at a friend’s house nearby will save you, but what if it’s a major disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, or flood? Odds are, if your friend’s house is in the same metro area, it will be affected also. Ideally, you would want your off-site storage several hundred miles away. This is another plus to cloud storage, because odds are, those servers are going to be hundreds of miles away from you and probably spread across many different locations.

My swap-a-hard-drive-at-Mom-and-Dad’s-house method is pretty good, but it might be a couple of months out-of-date. But at least I can get those last couple of months’ of picturse off of Smugmug. It’s a lot easier to copy the files from a hard drive than to get them back from the Internet either through download or ordering CDs (which would be expensive and I don’t even want to think about how many CDs I would need to order from them).

Step 6: Print out the pictures.

Any photos that I want to be accessible for many years, I have printed. Yes, this costs money. Do it anyway. I don’t recommend printing your photos at home; photo print services have better machines, processes, and inks. Just leave it to the pro’s. Personally, I use Shutterfly (and no they aren’t paying me), but there are many good ones.

Another plus to using an online photo printing site is that it can be an off-site backup, depending on how long the photos are stored there. You can order photo CDs if you need to. In fact, as I was fact-checking to write this, I learned that Shutterfly now has unlimited free photo storage; they didn’t used to, which was part of why I got Smugmug, among other things. Anyway, the point is: free online photo storage – with the option to order your photos on CDs (if you need them later) – does exist, so there’s really no good excuse not to do it. If you don’t have Internet access, go to the public library; furthermore, if you don’t have Internet access, how are you even reading this?

I like Shutterfly because the pictures look good, they aren’t too expensive ($0.15 per 4×6, currently), and (perhaps the biggest factor why I use them) they print the filename on the back. Remember all that filenaming you did? Yeah, here’s another way it pays off. Not necessarily having to rewrite all that again on the back of your prints. Although, you might want to write on them; that the pre-printed filename may rub off eventually. Without going off on a tangent about the best way to archivally label your photos, just please make sure your prints are labeled in some way (Step 6b) – or else you’ll still have the whole, “What was going on here and when?” scenario years later, if you don’t transfer the descriptions to the prints also.

Why do Step 6? For all the time I’ve spent developing and implementing my plan for how to keep my digital photos safe, I must admit, I still don’t 100% trust digital-only. I could write a whole separate blog entry about why that is, but suffice it to say that anything digital is always going to be technology-dependent, meaning you will need certain equipment and software in order to access it.

You know what’s not technology-dependent? Hard copy. That’s why you can still rummage through Grandma’s box of photos, even though the camera or even the negatives may be long gone. Back in the Day, the only option for enjoying your photos was to have prints made. And as long as those prints exist and you’ve got eyes to see, you’ll be able to enjoy them. You won’t be rooting around looking for a way to access that old hard drive or disk — assuming the media hasn’t gone bad — in 2050. You can just kick back with an album or box of pictures. Old School.

No special equipment required.

No special equipment required.


Okay, I know that was very long and involved and full of details. Part of that is because I’m verbose. But part of that is because actually managing to effectively preserve your photo memories in this day and age is involved. You must make a conscious effort to do it. And for some people, simply telling them, “You need to backup your photos,” is not really all that helpful. So I thought perhaps sharing something a little more step-by-step might be helpful.

This post is an example of one possible plan for keeping your digital photos safe. There are many options. And, like I have said, the way described here (“my” way) is not the only way or even necessarily the best way. But I think I have all the major bases covered. I can say with some degree of confidence that if my laptop kicked the bucket tomorrow (again, knock on wood), all my photos are safe because they exist somewhere else (in some cases multiple somewheres). I would even go so far as to say that if my house burned to the ground with all my physical belongings inside (WAY knock on wood), I could replace all of my digital photos except maybe the last week’s worth.

So while some might call all of this “overkill,” I call it “peace of mind.”

Save your digital photos, Part 1: Why you need to do it

I can’t remember the last time I so much as held a film camera. I have been shooting all my photos with a digital camera for years now. I’d be willing to bet that many of the rest of you have been doing the same. It’s quick, easy, convenient, cheap (free even – after the initial cost of the camera – because you don’t have to pay to develop film, and prints are optional), etc. So go ahead, take 10 shots of that weird bug you found on your porch.

My favorite part of digital photography is the ability to take a photo, check it, and take it again if you don’t like it – no more disappointment when you get the film back; no more taking 3 shots “just in case” (and still maybe not getting a good one).

What’s not to love, right?

Well, from an archivist’s perspective: a lot.

To a certain extent, I think a lot of archival and historical material manages to survive “by accident.” Once something is committed to a tangible medium, such as paper (a printed photograph, a letter, a diary, a newspaper, or whatever), it is pretty much going to remain in existence (somewhere) until it is physically destroyed in some way (thrown away, burned, flooded, shredded, etc.). Even materials stored in horrid conditions still sometimes manage to survive and are perfectly usable after decades. (Remember that box of old photos you found in Grandma’s sweltering attic? Okay, not the best storage location, but by God, they were in that shoebox and still perfectly viewable. And hopefully you rescued them to a more appropriate storage spot, like a main floor closet. Right? RIGHT?!)

Now, don’t get me wrong, your digital photos are still perfectly susceptible to dying in a fire or any of those other things I described — whether it’s the camera itself, the media card, your hard drive, or your prints. But in my opinion, digital photos are actually more fragile than old-school film/print photographs, because it actually seems to take a lot more work to keep them safe.

With both regular film photos and digital photos, you have to snap the picture, and you have the option to make prints. If you make prints and keep them safe the same way you would your old came-from-a-film-negative prints, then you are reasonably good to go on that front, as far as preserving your memories. But with the digital photos, you have no film negative – so what if you want to make another print? You need the original digital photo. (You could make a copy from one of your prints—if you have any—but it wouldn’t be as good of quality because it’s really a copy of a copy; the digital is the original.)

So what should you do to protect those digital photos, to ensure that they will both exist, and be accessible to you, for a long time?

The Ohio Historical Society’s recent blog post “Tips for Saving Your Digital Photographs” (May 7, 2012) has lots of great general advice in regards to safeguarding your digital photographs. In addition to general tips on how and where to save your files, the post has advice about the best way to use CD-Rs as a backup method, file formats and naming, and making prints.

I am pleased to report that my personal practices in regards to digital photo preservation seem to fall within the recommendations made in that OHS blog post, so in Part 2, I will share the specific details of my digital photo preservation regimen.

But before I get into any minutiae, I want to drill one thing into your head. If you take nothing else away from this article, please, for the love of God, remember LOCKSS, an acronym meaning “Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.”

Golden Rule of Saving Digital Content: Remember LOCKSS = Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.

If you only have one copy of something, especially if that something is digital, I can almost guarantee you that at some point, you are going to lose it. It will not be a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” and “how.”

Ever had your hard drive or disk crash and just stop working with little or no warning? Had your computer zapped by lightning? Spilled a drink in your laptop? Had your computer get virus’d, hacked, or stolen? Lost your USB thumb drive? Had your camera or cell phone get lost or stolen? Dropped your camera or cell phone (perhaps into a body of water)? Left your electronics in the car on a hot day?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. Hey, you’re not alone. These things happen to the best of us. Now, the question is, the next time one of those things happens to you, how many of your precious memories will be lost along with your electronics?

Now that I’ve really got your attention, stay tuned for Part 2, and I’ll tell you exactly what I do to keep my photos safe from the disasters described above (and doubtless many that I can’t even think of right now).

Remembering the 1937 Flood

When I was a kid, I remember my grandparents and others of their generation talking about the 1937 flood that had affected our town, Portsmouth, Ohio.

1937 Flood in Portsmouth, Near Waller Street (note N&W Train Depot in back ground)

1937 Flood in Portsmouth, Near Waller Street (note N&W Train Depot in back ground) (from my Grandpa P.'s collection)

As a child, I only thought about “the flood” as being in Portsmouth. It did not occur to me that if the Ohio River was flooded at Portsmouth, it was probably high everywhere else (or at least everywhere else downstream), by the very nature of rivers. But when I got older and more interested and did a little research on it — okay,  a lot of research (I wrote my 2005 history honors thesis on the 1937 flood) — I quickly learned that it was definitely not a localized incident but an extremely widespread disaster. It affected pretty much every community along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, breaking previous flood records in many of them.

For example, Portsmouth had long bragged that it was “flood-proof” thanks to a floodwall that would protect against a river height of 62 feet — which never quite made sense to me since the 1913 flood at Portsmouth reached over 68 feet. (So why brag about a 62-foot floodwall?) However, on January 27, the Ohio River crested at over 74 feet at Portsmouth, 12 feet higher than the floodwall. Thankfully, since then, a new 77 foot wall has been built, and so far, so good.

77-foot floodwall at Portsmouth, Ohio

77-foot floodwall at Portsmouth, Ohio

But back to the 1937 Flood… This year is the 75th anniversary of the 1937 Flood, and I couldn’t just let it pass without saying a word — not when I spent the better part of my senior year of college reading and writing about it.

I know that a lot of the affected communities are holding commemorative events this month to remember the flood. Unfortunately, I will be missing them, since I no longer live along the Ohio River, but if you have a chance, check them out some of the 1937 Flood commemorative events in cities like Cincinnati (library event list) and Portsmouth (event list).

If photos are what you’re interested in — and who isn’t? — you should definitely check these out:

Here are some great non-web resources on the flood:

I have noticed in recent years that there have been some new books published on the flood. (Where the heck were these when I was writing my paper in ’05?!)

  • James E. Casto, The Great Ohio River flood of 1937 (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009). Hey, love the title! I haven’t seen this (it’s on my wishlist), but it looks like mostly pictures — a great way to tell the story, flood photos make a huge impact! (Mr. Casto will be speaking on Jan. 26, 2012, at the Portsmouth Public Library.)
  • David Welky, The thousand-year flood : the Ohio-Mississippi disaster of 1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). This is also on my “list” — hooray for a university-press history of this event! Hey, I just realized that we have this book at the library where I work…going to have to request it…okay, just did!

One of the librarians at the Portsmouth Public Library gives a nice review of some of these materials in this YouTube video. The PPL also has some oral history interviews with 1937 flood survivors (including Alberta Parker, whose mother Bessie Tomlin died in the ’37 flood), as well as a video about the River Voices video on their YouTube page, so check it out.

And finally, since I have mentioned it at least three times — just in case you are interested in reading a copy of my 2005 senior history thesis “The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937”, you should be able to find a copy at : Columbus Metro Library and Shawnee State University’s Clark Library (both have cataloged it so it is listed on WorldCat); Portsmouth Public Library’s Local History Room and Greene County Public Library (not on WorldCat but I remember giving them each a copy).