I am helping someone downsize – should I advise them to keep their negatives? I am digitizing my printed photos – should I keep the originals? What about slides? Tape? Film?
I was first introduced to this question when I attended a digitize-it-yourself presentation at a local library. The presenter reminded us that originals will always be originals. With the exception of tape, which definitely degrades over time (upper end of tape life is 20 years), originals can keep for many decades if stored properly. This includes printed photos, negatives, slides, and film.
I reflected on this further upon catching up with a high school friend who had just received her Masters of Library Information Science in Archival Information Science. She pointed out that digitization isn’t about preservation, it’s about access. I think this is a great point. However, not everyone wants to have to store this stuff, so we have to consider what is practical, not just optimal.
Digitization does not put photographic memories into a better format, just a different format (with both advantages and disadvantages). It certainly serves as a form of backup if anything should happen to the originals. It should be considered as one method of archiving your photographic memories (three formats are recommended, to guard against different hazards).
I heard this question yet again when a professional organizer (who was helping someone organize in a home) asked a presenter whether to keep negatives or not. The presenter seemed indifferent between prints and negatives. While negatives are the true originals, I know from personal experience that sorting and organizing is much easier with prints than with negatives. The preservation answer would be to never dispose of the negatives, but the practical answer may be that one only has the resources to deal with prints. My sister proudly told me that she has tossed all of her negatives – I cringed a bit, but then I thought, “Well, the organizing is easier with prints.”
So here are my thoughts and my personal experience with what to keep or not:
Negatives and slides
These are the true originals. They don’t take up as much space as printed photos. However, they are not very practical if you need to find a particular image. I am keeping all of the negatives that I have; it is not an overwhelming number. They are labeled by event, so I can find an image if I need to. I don’t have any slides, but I should note that they are somewhat more cumbersome than negatives (although they don’t have to be stored in carousels). The day may come when both of these formats are truly of no use (no way to convert them to an image), but we are not there yet.
Printed photos (no negatives)
These are a step removed from the true original. For some old family photos (early 1900s), these are the closest thing to originals that I have, as there are no negatives. I plan to keep these, as my volume isn’t overwhelming. I also love the look and feel of old prints.
Printed photos (with negatives)
For my own printed photos, from the 1980s forward, I am not sure. For now, I am keeping printed photos of vacations that I have digitized. I created photo books of these trips, which I know tell a much better story than a stack of prints. I am just not ready to part with the prints, even though my negatives are labeled and organized and the photo books exist. So, I recognize it isn’t easy to toss – I’m getting there.
After digitization, I am comfortable saying it is fine to get rid of these. I have seen posts online indicating that folks have tape that is still playing beyond 20 years. My personal experience is that tape doesn’t last, despite being stored in reasonable conditions. Digitize it now, back it up twice (different media guard against different hazards – see this article on optical media), and then toss.
I have no personal experience with this, but my advice would be the same as negatives and slides. If you can manage to store it, then keep it – it is the true original. The day may come when this format is of no use, but it’s not here yet.
We now live in a world where the original photos themselves are digital. What we need to be aware of is whether our images are being compressed (and what level we are comfortable with, if any) and whether edits to photos are compromising the original image. See this article on jpgs for more information.
When I embarked on photo organizing and digitizing as a profession, I thought digitization was the answer to preservation. Fairly quickly, I learned it is only part of the answer. True preservation involves multiple forms of storage (one of which can be hard copy). We don’t know whether electronic files (digital files) will migrate easily over the long term, and the hardware they are stored on is not hazard-proof. So digital isn’t the complete answer, either.
Is it as simple as saying, “Always keep printed photos, negatives, slides, and film.”? No, it isn’t; practicality also matters. Each situation is unique. Certainly, move ahead with digitizing – but if you are hesitant to toss the originals, then keep them for now and reassess every few years.