What to Do with Digital Photographs

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As the world gets more and more digital, the fear that the artifacts that stand testimony to our history will vanish into the void increases. The main concern for patrons of archives and history societies is how to preserve digital photographs for the next generation.

Here are some tips and tricks to help you preserve the photographs from your PA program, your professional career, and even your family memories.

Rule #1: Label, label, label! Just because you know who everyone in the photo is doesn’t mean the archivist or family member you donate the photos to will! Give each photograph as descriptive a name as you can and remember to add the date. If space is too limited and the information too great, try separating photos into folders (for example, by date) and sub-folders (for example, an event). If the information is truly too much to put in the name or folder, give each photo a unique number and put that information on an accompanying Word document or PDF.

Rule #2: Quality over Quantity. Keep your audience in mind. If you are donating your photos to your university archive (Or *ahem* your friendly PA History Society), make sure all the items in the collection fit the theme. As entertaining as your child’s 5th birthday party was, future academic scholars probably will give it a pass. Before passing your photos along, cull for content, duplicates, and clarity of image.

Rule #3: Copies are your friend! In the archives biz we have a saying: LOCKSS – Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. The general rule of thumb is to have important digital artifacts in at least three locations. That external hard drive isn’t going to last forever! Also keep obsolescence of storage devices (ex. The late, great floppy disk) in mind and make sure to regularly migrate digital objects to keep up with current standards. Another archival rule of thumb is to make new copies every 5 years and check that current files are not corrupted at least once a year.

Rule #4: Which format is best? The best format to save digital photographs (and to pass them along) is TIFF (tif). It preserves the photograph in the best quality possible. Unfortunately, that means that the file size can be pretty huge. JPEG (.jpg) can also be acceptable because it takes up less space, but the quality of the image does suffer. Archivists usually preserve photographs as TIFF files and make JPEG copies of the photo as “usable” copies to pass along to researchers. GIF and Photoshop (psd) formats are never accepted unless it is a last resort.

While you’re scanning, sorting and preserving your photographs, keep in mind that the PA History Society accepts digital donations! Always email us beforehand so we can confirm the copyright and whether the photos meet our Collections Development Policy. The PAHx is especially interested in “action” shots of PAs at their practice, early photos from the Caucuses and Specialty Groups, and PAs serving in underserved communities.  If you are interested in the Society’s current photograph collections, you may visit featured collections here and search the entirety of our digital photographs here.

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