Paper is Still Important: Tips for Non-Digital Picture Preservation

With all this hurricane drama--Florence’s wrath has come and gone--I think it’s time to talk about backing up your family photographs. Natural disasters come when you least expect them. Earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, and tornadoes are all alive and well in our weather system-- it just depends on where you live!

But I’m not talking about your digital cache. I mean the good old-fashioned stuff you hold in your hand. Maybe the ones that have been sitting in your spare bedroom for months now. Those filed away in your attic (hopefully not) or basement. 

You might be thinking, “Erin, Sweetie, I don’t have time for that.”   

But I’d argue that you don’t have time NOT to.  

That photo of your grandparents after the stop at the courthouse before he left for the war?  Your favorite Great-Aunt Adelaide on her wedding day? Are you the only one in the family who has a copy? Trust me, it’s time.

#1 Leverage those doubles from yesteryear!

Find your stash of doubles from the pre-digital days--either in the basement or (I hope not) the attic. Find your favorite two dozen & place them in an acid-free envelope.  Place the envelope in your evacuation go-bag. Now your favorite memories from the various field trips, vacations, and holidays can join you on the road trip ahead.

Don’t forget the big photo envelopes. Moms are notorious for over-ordering and then never passing out the pics. Divvy those up and distribute between siblings so everyone has a few snapshots of you from 3rd grade!   My brother has copies of my school photos and vice-versa. These spark terrific discussion when your niece sees your crimped-80s hair and bright fluorescent clothing choices.

Bonus tip: Grab an acid-free pen and note the year of the image or the age of the kid in the image.

#2 Scan the snapshots with your device.

In addition to the paper copies, take a few minutes to scan the snapshot stack and any images you inherited (e.g those wedding & engagement portraits mentioned above or the one of cousin Ethel who did go uphill to school each day). And don’t forget a few school snapshots - you know, the ones from the Thanksgiving pageant and the Springtime sing-along. Phone cameras work, but GeniusScan (app) is even higher quality and can be saved directly to Google Drive for backup. A USB works well too--then it can go in your evacuation envelope you’ve got stashed by the bed!  

Having backups in both print & digital when you can is the best of both worlds because it provides you with more options and minimizing your chance of a loss. Happy storing!

#3: Use a good old fashioned safety deposit box.
Remember when you went with Mom and Dad to the bank to put something in the safety deposit box. It was a secret drawer and only you had the key. These may have fallen slightly out of fashion in the digital age, but I’d argue there are still some paper items worth protecting! Photos for one! Safety deposit boxes are still available at some banks and most are in a vault, which means it has additional security. This New York Times article* can tell you more. You can also ask your estate lawyer or insurance agent to keep an envelope in their office as a backup. Or, if you want to keep it in your own home, check out this fireproof document safe*.  

Whether you go digital or opt for the safety deposit box, why not save these pieces of your ancestry?

Do it for you! Do it for your children. Do it for future generations!

*By the way, I don’t make any money providing links to products, but I’m also not responsible for the product or your use of them.  

How to Find Peace with Photo Organization

Myth: More is more.

Reality: I know this won’t come as a shocker, but with photographs, less IS more. Books line the stores with ways to tidy up. Millennials are driving an experience-based economy. It’s all around and there’s no denying it. There’s simply no need to keep all 67 images from that trip to Gulf Shores in 1991.  

Wouldn’t it be better to have a few standout photographs in frames and on your walls. Maybe another handful in an album? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that shoebox is gone?

Solution: Start clearing it out and organizing them now.  It’s never too late to begin.

Myth:  You’ll eventually get to that stack of photo albums sitting in the guest bedroom. The same one that’s been there since 2016.

Reality:  Out of sight, out of mind.  As you pile the boxes of mini-polaroid snapshots and Walgreens-processed doubles, ask yourself:

  • How often am I in here?

  • Does anyone else know about these boxes?

  • Do I need to move before I’ll make this happen?

Solution: One step at a time. First, do what I call the First Filter. Make two piles: Keep and Toss. (No “Maybe” pile allowed). Pass along other images or discard the rest.  You can even send a stack away to photo scanning companies to get digital copies for you and your loved ones.

Myth: You’ll have time to grab a box of photographs if the house is on fire.

Reality:  If there were a wildfire approaching, maybe. But when you smell smoke or hear the tornado siren, you move fast. The boxes are heavy. You’re panicked. In fact, the boxes are a fire hazard themselves, sitting at the foot of the attic stairs.

Solution: Grab 10 key photographs you want to keep. Put them in an archival envelope and stash them by your bed. Whew. Does this mean you can’t bring them all? Yes. Is your life more important than photos? Yes.

The Photographs in Your Attic: 3 Myths

Are you like some members of my family?  Have you stockpiled boxes of photographs thinking that you’ll eventually frame or place in an album?  Oh dear.

Before you add anything more to that collection, let me help you with a few lessons learned from both sides of my family in recent years.

Myth: All your photos can be safely stored in the attic.

Reality: Do you hang out in your attic in the summer?  Nope. Neither should your photographs. Just think about all those old damaged photographs from your Grandmother Tessa’s trunk. It wasn’t just tobacco and coffee staining those up. It was heat, humidity, and mold. While the attic might be the "safest" place -- nobody will accidentally toss them out -- its also generally the warmest place in the house. And the most humid. Climate changes between seasons are enough to leave them a crumbled mess.

Solution: No need to display them. No need for them to be convenient, but temperature control matters.  Just keep them in your main living area or the basement. High shelves, to avoid flooding, are best. 

Myth: The photographs are in plastic so they should be fine.  

Reality:  Is the plastic merely water repellant or is it waterproof?  I’m asking for a friend who had air conditioner ducts leak. . . and a relative of said friend who had a leaky roof ruin boxes of baseball cards and genealogy research. True story. But there’s more. Is the plastic acid-free? (i.e. Are there any chemicals, which might unintentionally harm the photographs?)


  1. Check the details on that plastic storage box before you invest in it.

  2. Periodically check the box for cracks, holes, or faulty seals. (e.g. Have you overpacked it and prevented it from sealing?).

  3. Gauge the weight of the box. If you had to move it, could you? No, really?

Myth: No one goes into that attic but me.

Reality: Ever experience a squirrel invasion?  Or had to fumigate an attic for bugs? Does your cat or dog ever escape up there?  Could you find all their, ahem, droppings, if you had to? Attics get unexpected critters and they don’t all discriminate in what they destroy. But I’m talking about humans too.  

Solution: Check boxes for food and drink stains that could attract critters. If you find any, get a new box.  Bonus points to you if you use acid-free storage boxes.