Protecting Our Precious Documents and Photographs in Disasters, Part 1

Whether you read this blog because you are a Florida Panhandle history buff or a family genealogist who understands the importance of putting your ancestors into the context of the history they experienced, my guess is you have some documents, photographs or maybe material items that you have collected or you inherited from someone in your family. And if you are a reader situated in the Florida panhandle or in south Alabama, you know we are officially into hurricane season 2022. Each year we keep our eyes and ears on the Atlantic and the Gulf in case we need to step up our preparations for a direct or glancing blow from a hurricane or a tropical storm. And if you don’t live down here, you still live somewhere that nature occasionally targets with wind, rain, snow, tornadoes or earthquakes. Having your important documents as safe as possible and organized so if you need to evacuate you can grab and pack into the car, is critical to ensuring that you don’t lose the information that these documents contain. For the next two posts, I am going to give you some suggestions for tackling this important part of being a family historian.

What I am going to recommend is how I’ve handled, or am in the process of handling, my various documents, photographs and tangible/material items. I’ve done a fair amount of studying and reading to develop my method. I will admit up front that it can be time consuming, but I worry much less about the prospects of a nasty hurricane raking across my property than I use to. There is much to be said about the peace of mind that comes with a bit of preparation.

Original Documents

Michael King’s Postmaster certificate

We acquire original documents in a variety of ways. We can inherit them or a family member shares for us to copy and return, we can order them in the course of doing our family history, or someone can digitize and share it with us. I would generally recommend not planning to dispose of an original document, even after digitizing it. Here is what I recommend, and what I do with my original documents.

  1. I realize that my equipment is probably a bit more complex than most of you want to do. I don’t use my phone to store anything long term and the photos I might take with it are automatically uploaded to Dropbox. Too many bad things can happen with little phones. I use a desktop computer, an Epson XP-830 scanner/copier/printer for scanning photos and documents with a glossy finish, a Czur scanner for rapid scanning of paper documents/book pages and a number of backup options that provide maximum protection. More discussion below.
  2. I don’t always have the time to transcribe the document before I digitize it. Transcribing can sound tedious and unnecessary but especially with hand-written documents like wills and probate records the act of transcribing can help you to better understand what is in the document and how best to transfer that information to however you keep your family tree. I use a program called Transcript (see link below}. It allows you to see and scroll through the document at the top of the program and type in what you see at the bottom of the program and save as a text file. So much easier than toggling back and forward. If you don’t transcribe first, keep those documents waiting for transcription in a folder and occasionally do one when you have or make time. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen something I had not seen while trying to read, decipher and understand all at the same time.
  3. Scan the document using a scanner that will allow you to make a file of at least 1200 dpi resolution and save as a .tiff document. This format for files losses the least amount of detail as it is opened and saved over time. If your only option is a .jpg file, explore either subscribing to Adobe Creative Cloud’s monthly subscription for Acrobat or another option for saving one or more pages as a .pdf. Especially if the document is multiple pages, transferring the individual page files into a .pdf makes them much easier to pull up and review when needed and adding the transcription makes it even easier.
  4. Store any original documents in an archival quality sleeve. There are different kinds, some that are top loaders and some that open on the side and a variety of sizes. Get a size a bit larger than your document. There are several good places to buy archival storage supplies. My favorite is Gaylord Archival. Once in a sleeve, they should be kept in an archival box in a location that doesn’t have major fluctuations in temperatures, is not close to a location where water might leak (on the other side of the bathroom wall, in the room with your hot water heater, etc). Since I already have a safety deposit box, I am moving toward getting all of my originals stored there. It is off-site, reasonably safe from fire, rain, and hurricanes. I’m not there yet but I am making progress.
  5. Digital copies of the documents are kept as follows: a) In a folder for that particular family surname with each of my direct ancestors having their own subfolder. Children not in my direct line have subfolders under the parent who is my direct ancestor. b) I also back-up all my genealogy files and photos to a separate hard drive that is portable and a thumb drive that I can attach to my laptop if I go to do research somewhere off-site and, c) to the cloud via Dropbox for documents. This is one of the areas that needs to fit how you work on your family history but don’t just save something in the default folder that pops up. You will quickly be unable to find something if you need it.


Allen & Mary J. Gaskin Hart family
  1. Phones are good things and bad things. From my perspective one of the bad things is the ease with which people take a photo of a document, or worse a photo of a photo, with little care to ensuring the phone is parallel with the photo or document causing skewing of the taken photograph. If a photo and the phone was handheld it usually also has motion on it and it is skewed. If you must do the scanning this way, explore options for stabilizing the phone and ensuring the phone is parallel to the document/photo. I understand that the Santa Rosa genealogy library is in the process of making some options available for folks to use for this purpose.
  2. If your photo stash is like mine, it can feel overwhelming to begin the process of scanning them. Start by going through and sorting into three categories. a) Those old tintypes and cabinet cards that need maximum protection and scanning as soon as possible. Do these first. b) Photos of family members or family events that are particularly meaningful to you. Do these second. c) Duplicates and photos that don’t really have much meaning to you or you already have lots of photos of the people in the photos. Before you consider discarding, check with the people in the photo and see if they would like to have them. If you have time scan these before you discard or give away. I don’t know about you but getting rid of something a week before I suddenly have a need for it has happened enough times to me for me to be cautious.
  3. Like with documents, scan at least at 1200 dpi and scan photographs as color even if black and white. You will retain the most digital information that way. Put them in the correct folders as you go. To make that as minimally aggravating as possible, I sort photos into family groups then scan. The Epson scan software that comes with the Epson XP-830 will allow you to set a folder and allow you to establish a file name. It will then insert a number after each file name. I scan photos as .tiff files and have a folder labelled “Originals” that I put all of the photos of one family in. I then use Photoshop to do any adjustments to the color and crop to the size of the photo without a lot of extra on the side and save as a .jpg at medium to high resolution. You can always make it a smaller size file to share if you are sending by email or Facebook.
  4. If you want to enhance the photos after you scan, crop, decrease the size or resolution so it is easier to share on Facebook, etc., you need a program to do that. Since I am on a computer and not a phone, I use Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Both of these are available in several of the monthly subscription packages at the Adobe website below. If you won’t have a long term use for these programs, like I do, get yourself all set up to get started, then subscribe and work consistently until you no longer need the programs and cancel the subscription. There are less expensive software options and some freebees. Do some searching if the subscription isn’t your cup of tea.
  5. I use Adobe Bridge to digitally label all my photographs with the names of people and places the photo was taken, if known. I then upload the .jpg to Amazon Photo. They have some additional labeling that makes sharing photos of a family with others with easily. I am still in the process of getting all of that set up in Amazon Photo so I can just give access to folks who want a photo(s). You can also label the people in a photo specifically. The software can’t recognize some baby faces, faces that are turned partially away from the camera and those that are out of focus. That’s my one big complaint. If their software can’t recognize that it is a face, you can’t label the person. But their facial recognition is pretty helpful after you’ve labeled a few photos of a person. You can also group photos into family groups and order prints of a photo. And finally it is very reasonably priced and allows a lot of storage space. I am not currently uploading the original .tiff files but will do if I have the storage space when I get all of the .jpgs and videos uploaded.
  6. On the 15th and 30th I back up my genealogy files to a portable hard drive and my genealogy thumb drive.
  7. Tintypes and very old photos should be stored in archival sleeves and an archival box. I use an archival index card to write on to include information on who is in the photo and insert it behind the photo.  Don’t write on these items. If you keep them at your home, keep it like I indicated for originals documents above. Everyone in the family should know where these documents and photos are and if you need to evacuate they should be added to the materials you take with you. That’s why I like the idea of using my safety deposit box for these two sets of documents. Less to think about leading up to a disaster.
  8. Favorite photos of family that have a lot of meaning for you should also be kept in archival sleeves using the same archival index cards to identify people in the photo. If you must write on the back, use a soft pencil or an archival pen and write gently but it would be best not too. These should be stored safely as described above and grabbed and placed in the car if evacuating. If the photo album is part of the overall presentation and has meaning for the family, scan the photos in the album or remove and put back carefully and don’t forget the album if evacuating. This is one reason I like the Czur scanner. It can handle large documents so you can scan an entire album page, leaving the photos as they were originally placed and retaining that detail.

Next month we will discuss tangible items like Bibles, dishes, vases, quilts, etc. And then the subject so many of us avoid until it is too late; deciding who gets what when you pass away and seeing that those instructions are clearly in your will.

Until next time.


3 thoughts on “Protecting Our Precious Documents and Photographs in Disasters, Part 1

  1. Thank you for this info. I have had many times when I was not allowed to scan pictures and documents. Then I used any method at hand to get a copy. It may be less desirable but I do anything to get a copy. In the beginning I was having a hard time getting copies. This was before computers and scanners. So I bought a camera that I could use really close lenses on. I used high resolution black and white film. The old brown tone pictures turned out better than the original. Now I use a digital camera with close up lenses. Because of this I have many documents and pictures that I would not have if I had not done this.

    Dr. Ray Minger, PhD


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Protecting Our Precious Heirloom Items in Disasters and for Future Generations, Part 2 | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

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