Yes, you want to save all those important family photographs. There’s just one problem: They’re mixed in with thousands of pictures. Which ones do you really want to keep? Should you pick out the important stuff and save it in a collection that gets special attention? That can be a lot of work. Should you toss everything onto a terabyte drive? That saves effort, but will your grandchildren bother to go through it for the pictures that are worth remembering? Are there pictures in that big pile that you’d much rather they didn’t see?

The Library of Congress offers some advice which sounds useful:

Identify where you have digital photos

  • Identify all your digital photos on cameras, computers and removable media such as memory cards.
  • Include your photos on the Web.

Decide which photos are most important

  • Pick the images you feel are especially important.
  • You can pick a few photos or many.
  • If there are multiple versions of an important photo, save the one with highest quality.

That’s a reasonable agenda for a full-time librarian. For those of us who have other things to do, it’s a daunting challenge. It’s not unusual to have a few thousand digital photographs lying around and very little organization about them. The only clues you may have about their content and context are the file date (which can be wrong) whatever you can gather by looking at the picture. Some of my oldest digital photographs, from 2002 or earlier, have no metadata beyond the digital characteristics of the picture; they don’t say when they were taken or even on what kind of camera. The files have names like DSCN0128.JPG. The file with that name, incidentally, is dated “Jan 1, 2001 12:00 AM,” and it’s not from a New Year’s party. I remember that party. We toasted the New Millennium to Also Sprach Zarathustra. The picture isn’t from there.

But I digress. The point is, you have lots of pictures and don’t necessarily know a lot about them. Storage is cheap, and time isn’t. The best strategy may be a culling strategy; not “pick the images you feel are especially important,” but “spot the ones that are plain junk and get rid of them.”

While you’re doing that, try to give the pictures some sort of organization. This is best done on an ongoing basis rather than in one desperate plunge. My approach is to have a bunch of folders with descriptive titles, by geographic area or event or whatever. A lot of the folders have subfolders; I have a “Cons” folder with subfolders by convention name, most of those with subfolders by year. I drag pictures from the camera import folder to an appropriate folder. The ones that don’t get dragged out of the import folder eventually get deleted. Sometimes I rename the files to something descriptive and add metadata; sometimes I don’t. The result is a semi-organized collection of pictures with some stuff which other people might find interesting in years to come. Since I’m the kind of person who writes about file preservation, I have occasional bursts of fanaticism that let me improve the organization a bit.

To one degree or another, that’s the approach which makes sense for most people. Try not to lose anything important. Keep it as organized as you can on an ongoing basis. Don’t make an unnecessary effort to live up to the standards of people who work for libraries (like me). A good management tool (e.g., Adobe Bridge but not iPhoto) is a big help. It’s much easier to maintain good preservation habits than to tackle a huge organization project.