How to Preserve Family Photos, Videos, and Memories for Future Generations

In honor of Black History Month, we asked African American museum experts and family historians for their best advice and tips

A collage of family photos and paper materials Photo Illustration: Courtesy of Jewell Singletary

Our most prized possessions often don’t have much resale value. They’re simple things, like an old family photo, a letter, or even a story passed down at the dinner table. But, if not properly preserved, they can be easily lost forever.

“Fortunately, and unfortunately, trauma has helped to preserve my family’s photos,” says Jewell Singletary, a wellness coach who made a short documentary tracing her lineage from rural Georgia back to her great-great-great maternal grandmother’s original ethnic group in Cameroon, Africa.

Singletary’s aunts and older cousins had been reluctant to share records because many of the memories involve people who died untimely and tragic deaths, and they didn’t want to trigger grief for other family members. That meant keeping family photos, videos, and documents tucked away, where they were rarely handled. 

But during the pandemic, “everyone started realizing how precious these memories are and, if they don’t pass them down, we will lose them," Singletary says. "I started asking questions during our monthly family Zoom calls and it opened Pandora’s box.”

A distressed old printed photograph from the 1940's of a group of 11 people smiling sitting around a couch.
This family photo, shot in the 1940s in Harlem, was saved and scanned by Jewell Singletary.

Photo: Courtesy of Jewell Singletary Photo: Courtesy of Jewell Singletary

Those conversations led to one of Singletary’s most cherished and oldest finds, a photo from the 1940s that had been locked away for decades. It shows four generations of family members at their home in Harlem, including her great-great-great-grandfather, William Drake, who was born in 1865, the year the Civil War ended. “So it’s super special that we have a picture of him,” Singletary says. “I used nitrile gloves when handling the photo. It is very delicate and the photo paper is thinning.”

You never know what you’ll find when you start talking to family members about their stories or digging through boxes of photos, documents, and ephemera that have been collecting dust. But once you do, it’s important to think about how to preserve and share what you uncover.

More on Family History and Photography

“Later, if you’ve preserved it properly, someone is going to come across it and know that it’s special,” says Vanessa Cogdell Moore, who oversees the Save Our African American Treasures program at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.

On an average day before the pandemic, anywhere from 20 to 60 people would visit the museum for the program bringing photos, quilts, uniforms, recipes, and other items to learn how to best preserve the artifacts—and, most important, the stories behind them. 

We asked museum experts, including Cogdell Moore and family historians like Singletary to share tips and strategies for safeguarding your family’s memories for decades or even centuries.

Getting Started

“The first step is always to do it now, wherever you need to start,” says Doretha Williams, director of the Center for the Digitization and Curation of African American History, part of NMAAHC. Here are tips on how to begin.

1. Be Prepared Emotionally

When you dig through decades’ worth of documents, it can “stretch you mentally, emotionally, and physically,” Singletary says. “Be patient with yourself and others through the process.”

You might set out to celebrate the best parts of your family’s past, experts say, but come across items that remind you of difficult times or great losses. Acknowledging that possibility will prepare you for what might be an emotional journey. 

2. Interview the Oldest Person in Your Family

Many family stories haven’t yet been captured on paper, film, or other media; they live in the heads of relatives. If you’re fortunate to have grandparents or other elders you can interview, now’s the time to reach out.

Williams learned from her grandfather that his grandfather had served in the Civil War, and after doing some research, she was surprised to find her great-great grandfather’s name etched on the African American Civil War Memorial a few blocks from her D.C. home. “My grandfather passed when he was 102,” she says, “And that’s one of the best conversations we ever had.”

StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that helps people preserve their stories through interviews, offers lists of questions to ask. For example: “What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?” and “Do you remember any of the stories your favorite relatives used to tell you?” If you’d like to record the conversation for posterity, you can use the StoryCorps mobile app or video conferencing tool. Both provide the option of uploading the audio to the Library of Congress if you and your interview partner wish. 

3. Use Local Libraries, Preservation Societies, and Other Community Resources

Try to follow up oral tradition with research that expands the story. Over a casual lunch with her grandmother, author and genealogist Bernice Bennett learned that her great-great-grandfather owned 160 acres of land in Louisiana after the Civil War—a surprise given that he had formerly been enslaved. That led Bennett down a 15-year journey to gather documentation to verify what she had uncovered and learn more about her family.

An old document that has the title of Family Record with an embellished typeface. Handwritten names along with place and date of birth appear underneath.
A record kept in an old family bible helped Bernice Bennett discover the birthdate of her great-great grandfather Peter Clark.

Courtesy of Bernice Bennett Courtesy of Bernice Bennett

If you’re delving into your family’s history, “follow every lead and study the community,” Bennett says. She went to county courthouses, reviewed U.S. Census records, studied Land Entry Papers from the National Archives in D.C., and searched through old newspapers. While doing so, she met relatives she didn’t know existed and helped capture more of her family’s stories.

Curating and Restoring Family Artifacts

What do you do with all the material you’ve gathered? Curate the collection like a museum archivist would.

Two young Black men in suits posing for a formal portrait.
Peter Clark (seated) with his son Moses, circa 1906, in Livingston Parish, Louisiana.

Photo: Courtesy of Bernice Bennett Photo: Courtesy of Bernice Bennett

4. Be Selective 

“I would encourage people to take the time to identify what’s valuable in their possession,” says Cogdell Moore, “because everything doesn’t have the same intrinsic value.” Think about items you have by asking, “Is this something I want to pass down for future generations?”

This doesn’t mean that you should toss everything that doesn’t fit that description. But prioritize preserving the things that will have lasting emotional and historical resonance.

5. Label Everything

Professional photographer and teacher Don Orkoskey has extensively researched his own family history. He suggests identifying the names of people in the photos, and if possible, recording more information, too. “What were they doing here in this photo? Was it a birthday, a wedding, etc.? Get the story because that brings the photo to life.” 

Good labeling also helps future generations. “You never know,” Orkoskey says. “You might have that photo from Frank’s wedding and by knowing the names of the people in the photo, some far-off relative 80 years from now might recognize the name of a great-aunt who attended the wedding and appears in no other family photos.”

If pieces of the puzzle are missing, recruit other family members to help get the information you need. 

6. Restore What You Can 

You can retouch or restore old photos in software like Adobe Photoshop, says Consumer Reports’ social media program manager David Morgan. After his father died in 2017, Morgan took to scanning old photos of his parents “as a process of mourning and remembrance.” In Photoshop, he removed some of the wear marks and boosted the colors. 

A before and after of a photo restoration showing a Black teenage couple posing for their high school prom portrait.
CR staffer David Morgan used Photoshop to restore this 1969 photo of his parents, Maurice “Rick” Morgan and Tina Morgan, at their high school prom.

Photo: Courtesy of David Leon Morgan Photo: Courtesy of David Leon Morgan

If you’re not comfortable doing that work yourself or you need more than software to restore an item, you can hire a conservation professional. For help in finding one, use the membership search at the American Institute for Conservation (AIC).

Future-Proofing

“I really wish everyone would preserve their family’s history,” Orkoskey says, “because we all end up being stories in the end, and each one of those stories is worth so much to so many people who haven’t even been born yet.” Although we might not be able to make anything persist forever, many photos, documents, and other items have lasted for centuries. Here are a few tips to put the odds in your favor.

7. Use Archival Quality Materials

When storing old photos and documents make sure you house them in museum quality or archival acid-free folders and boxes

The Library of Congress offers instructions on the safe care, handling, and storage of books, paper, photographs, scrapbooks and albums, newspapers, comic books, motion picture film, records, magnetic tape, optical discs, and other items.

According to the NMAAHC, here are five key things to keep in mind:

  • Avoid bright or direct light.
  • Maintain a consistent temperature, one the average person would feel comfortable in year-round.
  • Keep objects clean, but clean them with care. Remove dust with a soft, lint-free cloth and avoid harsh commercial cleansers or solvents.
  • Guard against insects and pests.
  • Avoid excess moisture. Don’t store items in the basement or anywhere else where humidity and mold are common.

Many museums, historical societies, libraries, and even churches have programs that allow you to bring in items for advice on the best way to preserve them. Call around to see what’s available.

An old scanned document with the title of Agreement with Freemen from the Livingston Plantation dated  April 1, 1868 shows several names listed in handwriting under the contract language.
Bennett discovered this Freedmen Bureau Labor Contract, from 1868, for her ancestor Peter Clark on the Coxe Plantation.

Courtesy of Bernice Bennett Courtesy of Bernice Bennett

8. Make Digital Copies

All of the experts we interviewed emphasize the importance of digitizing your photos, film, audio recordings, and documents—and saving the originals. To digitize printed material, you can use a dedicated scanner, an all-in-one printer, or even a smartphone.

Because hardware can become obsolete (anyone remember the Zip disk or Betamax?) and physical media can degrade over time, it’s also critical to save digital copies to the most current formats and storage media. For example, if you have files on CDs, transfer them to your computer, an external hard drive, or the cloud, since CD players are growing less common. 

Always start with the source material, Orkoskey says. “If you’ve got an 8mm film reel that was converted to VHS then transferred to a DVD, don’t just copy the contents of the DVD. Find a service that can take that 8mm and import it digitally and possibly even enhance it.”

Here’s how to convert film and VHS to digital.

9. Back It All Up

If you don’t have a backup system in place yet, now is the time to set one up. Ideally, you’d store copies of your files in three places. Think computer, an external hard drive, and a cloud service, for example. That protects you if your computer dies or gets stolen, as well as if a natural disaster hits home.

Since hard drives have a limited lifespan, it’s a good idea to check your drive’s health once in a while, say, when you change the clocks for daylight savings time or if your computer is starting to feel sluggish. Some hard drive manufacturers provide their own tools, but you can use your computer’s built-in utilities, instead.

On Mac, open Disk Utility > First Aid > Verify Disk.

On Windows, type “cmd” into the search bar to open Command Prompt. Then enter “wmic diskdrive get status” (without the quotes).

A collage of family photos and paper materials
Jewell Singletary made this collage of herself with her grandparents in 1988.

Photo Illustration: Courtesy of Jewell Singletary Photo Illustration: Courtesy of Jewell Singletary

10. Share With Your Family and the Community

Finally, don’t keep all this work to yourself. Sharing your collection and making it accessible to others can deepen the connections you have with family members. On a practical note, copies you make for them also serve as backups and help the artifacts live on after you’re gone.

Consider making a ritual of passing things down or going over family heirlooms at holiday get-togethers. For exhibiting photos and other files remotely, you can create a shared family folder on Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox

Many museums, historical societies, and other organizations may be interested in your personal and family records, too, including photos, letters, and other materials—even if your family members aren’t famous. Archivists and preservationists use items like those to capture details from different times and places. 

Besides the benefit of contributing to your community’s collective memory, an item donated to an organization can be professionally preserved and secured. The contents of the records will be made accessible to you, your family members, and researchers in future years.

You can start with a historical society in the community where your family lived or a museum that focuses on specific experiences, such as NMAACH.


Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

As a service journalist, my goal is to help people get the most out of their technology and other tools. Prior to joining CR, my work appeared online and in print for publications including The New York Times, Wirecutter, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics, and PCWorld. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or chasing the puppy. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola).