In the Morris-Shinn-Maier collection, there was a box of photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century. There were around 300 snapshots, as well as 60 or so “cartes de visite” and “cabinet cards,” which are types of formal photographs taken in the 19th century. This is quite exciting, because they were in excellent condition, and the snapshots showed everyday life, rather than the posed photos that often survive from that time period.
However, they are nearly useless to scholars.
Almost none of the photographs have any information about what they depict. Around 8 out of the cabinet cards and cartes de visite have the person in the photograph identified. Only 5 of the snapshots have information on them–landscapes which just have their location on them.
Here are two of the unidentified prints. Wouldn’t you like to know who these people are, where they were, what they were doing?
This is truly a tragedy. There are fascinating photographs in this collection, photos which likely have historical value, photos which seem to long to tell a story. The stories behind these photographs have been lost to history, and that’s a real shame.
For this reason, I encourage all of you to label your photographs! Make sure that people in the future can look at a photo and understand why you decided that at that exact moment, you needed to preserve your surroundings forever. Facebook is wonderful for this, as are digital photos in general–facial recognition software can use one identified photo to match up with others. However, the boxes of old snapshots in your basement? Go through those now, before you forget who’s in them or pass away, and your kids, relatives or (if you’re a member of an old Quaker family) I have to go through all of them and decide what to do with them.
There are a number of fairly simple ways to go through photographs. For one, throw away out-of-focus shots, duplicates, shots where your finger is over the lens, or shots where everyone’s eyes are closed. Keep the ones you would want to look at in the future. Secondly, even if you don’t label each individual person in every photograph, label the most important people and those who appear in many photographs. Finally, even dates and locations can be very helpful.
Follow these tips, and in a hundred years, you won’t be frustrating summer students working in the archives of some college or another.