The inherited-photos dilemma

Do you struggle with a collection of old photos? If so, you may relate to the following question I got via email, which the sender agreed I could answer here since this situation is not uncommon:

I have a ton of old pictures that I ended up with when my mom passed away three years ago. Sadly, some of them I have no idea who they are. I dread organizing them and wonder if you have any tips to help me. Many of them are in old photo albums on black paper with those little edges.

I’m wondering if I should save those as is or take them all apart and scan and get rid of them. I’ve put this off for three years now. Help me before I put it off for another three years — or more!

I also have slides that my parents took and have no way of looking at them to see if I even want to keep them.

First of all, you are under no obligation to keep old photos that have no meaning to you, which would be the case with photos of unknown people. Just as with anything else you inherit, you can decide which items you want to keep and then find appropriate homes for the rest.

What would be an appropriate home for those photos of mystery people? If anyone in your family is into genealogy, that person might well appreciate getting the photos. My brother began researching our family tree over the past few years and has identified many of the mystery people in the photos we inherited from my mother. You might bring the photos to a family gathering and see if anyone wants some.

If no family members have any interest, you could check to see if a local historical society would be interested in them. An art school — or any school’s art class — might enjoy working with them. Some people have had luck using freeycle groups, Craigslist, or eBay to sell or give away old photos.

If none of these ideas work out for you, it’s okay to just toss the photos that aren’t meaningful to you. As Earth911 explains, many older photos have a chemical coating that keeps them from being recyclable, so they may just need to go into the trash bin.

For the photos you do want to keep, scanning at least the best of them is a good idea. Digital photos can be stored and backed up so they won’t be lost if you were unlucky enough to have a flood, a fire, etc. Also, digital photos can be easily shared with other family members. You could scan them yourself, using a flatbed scanner, or pay one of the many photo scanning services to do this for you.

You can then decide whether you want to keep the originals of the photos you’ve scanned. For any you do want to keep, using an album or box that has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) will help ensure the photos don’t deteriorate over time. Albums can make for nicer viewing, but photo boxes take a lot less space.

You are lucky that your photos are in albums with the little corner holders, so it will be easy to remove them as needed. If you have any hard-to-remove photos in those magnetic sticky albums, you can follow the advice from the Smithsonian Institution Archives about safely removing those photos.

For dealing with the slides, you can buy a slide viewer fairly inexpensively to allow you to look through the slides. Slides you would like to keep can also be scanned for easier viewing in the future. If you don’t want to pay a service to scan them, you could consider renting a slide scanner rather than buying one for just a one-time project.

Finally, work at a pace that is comfortable for you. Some people like to set aside a whole day or more for a project like this, while others prefer to do a little bit every day or every week.

7 Comments for “The inherited-photos dilemma”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    Flatbed scanners are way to time-consuming for this kind of work. I use a very fast Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. You can scan photos into very high resolution files. The scanners dashboard lets you quickly save in cloud sites and computer drives for sharing and backup.

  2. posted by R Auttey on

    I am one of these who has I heirited every old family photo as I’m the only surviving member of both my parents families. I have spent a lot of time going through them & by comparing photos have identified people I had no way of knowing who they were. I found one photo of of a young mother & baby. I was able to identify it was my great grandmother holding my grandmother by the broach my great grandmother was wearing in another photo. By doing a little detective work & using a magnifying glass I learned who a surprising number of family members were. They typically had maybe one “dress up” outfit or a special piece of jewelry they would wear for special occasions such as having their photograph made.
    I have gotten rid of a lot of them but this helped me keep the ones that were special & they will go to my children


  3. posted by Cheri Warnock on

    The Association of Personal Photo Organizers ( allows you to search the member list to find a photo organizer near you. A professional can help make the job less stressful and overwhelming. You can also look through the association’s blog for helpful articles on how to handle your photos.

  4. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    Leslie, I have a Fujitsu ScansSnap, and it’s a great scanner. I have indeed used it to scan photos, and some of my clients with ScanSnaps have done so, too. But there’s always the risk a photo will get damaged (wrinkled or torn) going through the scanner, which is why I wrote about using a flatbed scanner. If a photo is especially precious (or fragile), I wouldn’t risk using the ScanSnap.

    But thanks to The Wirecutter, I just found out about a non-flatbed scanner that’s specifically designed to scan photos quickly and safely:

  5. posted by Dajolt on

    One comment: before you give them away, check if they are holiday photos with small children. Some of these images may feature naked children, as it was ok at that time, but may be considered child porn now. I often go through boxes of slides on yard sales, because amounts the family snaps there’s also interesting landscapes. More than once did I have to ask the seller to take out the naked pictures…

  6. posted by Karla on

    I have had great success with the app Heirloom. It allows you to snap a picture of your photo, crop it, write a description then automatically upload it to the web.

  7. posted by Brian on

    Found this website for scanning all your slides and pictures at once.
    Haven’t tried them, but it looks like they have the solution to all those old slides you can’t see anymore since you don’t have a projector. Old Photos too.
    It’s not real cheap, but looks like you get a lot for the money.

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