Building a Local Photo Archive

Haying at the Ide family and company farm, 1926. Photo from an album donated by Jamie Ide and family to the Waterford Historical Society. A number of area residents talked about their haying experiences when they saw this photo. Courtesy of the Waterford Historical Society.

In the first couple of years when the Waterford Historical Society scrambled into existence, the group’s leaders often put out a call for photos at the program meetings. “Share your family and house photos with us!” But there was almost no response. We dug steadily through online sources, purchased anything relevant that popped up on eBay, and longed for more. The photos we yearned to see existed—but were not being brought forward.

As of 2020, despite the pandemic, we’ve solved this problem. We found three things that work:

One: We post images of the photos we have on Facebook pages that relate to local history. In our area, these pages often have titles that begin with “Things I Remember About Growing Up In …” (add town name). Plus, the historical society has its own page. The posts that get the most attention and conversation are ones that include a question, like “Who remembers Mrs. X” or “Did you go to school here?” People who respond often share more photos. A quick follow-up to a photo owner, “Is it okay if we print and share this with Waterford Historical Society?,” almost always gets a big yes.

Two: We settle for second best with photos. Instead of asking someone to donate a treasured photo or even to let us take it to get professionally copied, we take a cell-phone photo of it right away. With a little fine-tuning, these photos-of-photos can have excellent resolution. They get identified when we snap the pictures, so there are fewer that get labeled with “?” and more that have actual dates as well.

Three: We accept any offer of paper ephemera, and tackle the identifications with two versions of team research. When conditions allow, we have photo archive meetings in the winter, with half a dozen people labeling everything possible and a few individuals doing research at the same time. This was a good way to process the boxes of undated newspaper clippings that came in from an estate! And whenever possible, for a set of images that need identification, we team up two or three people who can drive around to match photo backgrounds, or develop family trees, or add cemetery information. That has enabled us to identify about 80 percent of two extensive photo albums. We were first given online access to these albums, then the owners chose to donate the originals to the historical society afterward.

Group archive work at the Waterford Historical Society. Left to right, Tanya Powers, Helen Chantal Pike, Donna Rae Heath. Courtesy of Beth Kanell.

The two biggest factors have been providing routes for sharing photos that don’t take the originals out of the hands of family members who treasure them, and preparing team approaches to photo identification. These, in turn, result in many newspaper and online articles based on the discoveries, and fosters much regional pride in our history.

And yes, our photo archive has become more digital than we’d originally expected. But it’s the sharing of the photos that builds the archive, so digital has turned out to be a great advantage over the long run. Learn more and keep up with the Waterford Historical Society at their website and on their Facebook page.

Archive storage cabinet for paper items, filed by family name and topic, kept in the town office hallway for the Waterford Historical Society. Courtesy of Beth Kanell.

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