The People of Pancho

At Play In The Archive

The Method Behind the Madness

Hello, People. I’ve gotten a few queries about how I manage my archive, so I’m going to digress a bit today and describe my process. If nerdy details are not your cup of tea, then please come back tomorrow when I’ll resume my usual programming.

I didn’t set out to establish an archive, or take up genealogy, or write a blog, but only to satisfy my curiosity about the contents of some forlorn cardboard boxes in the back of a closet at my maternal grandparents’ house. Emptying out a home after the death of its occupants is a weighty job under any circumstances, but my grandmother had a truly mind-blowing amount of stuff. We — her children, grandchildren, and our spouses — had a limited amount of time in which to accomplish the removal, so when I peeked in boxes and saw very old albums and hundreds of loose photos, I simply sealed them up and shipped them home with the intention of examining them all later. Nobody was terribly interested in pondering them at the time, fully engaged as we were in dispatching mountains of furniture, tchotkes, kitchenware, clothing, and hobby supplies.

Reading with my Grandma Kathi, who was also a packrat, I mean, unofficial archivist.

Reading with my Grandma Katherine Adams Lessiack, who was also a packrat, I mean, archivist.

Fast forward six months, when back home I began unpacking the boxes and trying to make sense of the chaos. I recognized only a few people in the photos, some dating from the very early 20th century. Very few of the images were labeled, and where labels existed, they were mostly dates or locations, almost never names. Many of the documents were in German, handwritten in indecipherable script. Who were these people?

I asked around the family, but no one knew. I’ve always been something of a magpie where old photographs and mysteries are concerned, and I soon found myself in a quicksand of tantalizing questions that I was compelled to explore. My archive was born of that compulsion.

The other avid genealogist, my great-grandmother Helen Hudelson Adams Yoder.

With my great-grandmother Helen Hudelson Adams Yoder, another avid genealogist. Apparently, this affliction is hereditary.

Here are the steps I followed. It all looks a lot tidier in retrospect than it felt at the time.

Step 1: Consider why you do it.

When the going gets tough, it’s very, very tempting to wander off and do something easier. Capturing your reasons for taking on this demanding project is very helpful in keeping up your discipline.

Here are some of my reasons:

I also had some mysteries that I was dying to solve, so that kept me going too:

Your motivations will be different, but you won’t regret taking the time to capture the reasons you started.

Step 2: Establish categories, even if they are wrong.

I bought several large plastic file boxes and several cartons of hanging folders, and then I did my best to sort the artifacts into rough categories by family. The biggest folder of photographs I labeled “Mystery People,” but it wasn’t long before I began to recognize the same faces over and over. Soon I was able to correlate them with other clues from my genealogical research. Eventually “Mystery People” became “Leo’s Mystery People” and “Margaret’s Mystery People,” which in turn led to other clues and identifications. I can identify a lot more people now than I could when I started.

For the record, I also had folders named weird things like, “Empty Houses” and “Cars Someone Loved” and “Traveling Dogs” but you might not want to get quite that granular. I had a ton of random stuff, so I had to start somewhere.

Step 3: Decide what kind of archive you’re building.

Once everything has a folder home — even if it’s wrong — you have a choice to make. Will the archive be only a physical archive, or will it also be digital? I felt compelled to blog about my genealogical explorations, so I needed my archive to also be digital.

Whether you stop with the physical or move on to the digital frontier, it’s important to store your physical archive in acid-free materials that won’t eat up the precious things you’re trying to preserve. There are any number of supply houses for archival materials, but I’ve always had the best luck here: Beware: archival materials are pricey, which is why I recommend doing a preliminary sort through your goodies to determine what you really need before purchasing. I also highly recommend following the advice of The Practical Archivist. She is a real archivist, so if what I say and what she says ever conflict, go with what she says.

Also, you don’t have to keep everything. There are no archive police who will come arrest you if you toss things. Completing Step 1 was important in helping me determine what to keep and what to toss. Space and money are not unlimited, so I only keep what is of interest of to me as Queen of My Archive.

Step 4: Pick a focus and start scanning.

On to the digital archive. I do not recommend starting with the first random thing on the pile, because scanning gets very boring very quickly, and I guarantee that your enthusiasm will peter out if you don’t have a clear purpose. Yes, I made this mistake in the beginning, which is why I’m warning you. After puttering around aimlessly for a couple of weeks, I decided to focus strictly on ephemera related to my beloved great-grandfather, Franz Georg Leopold “Leo” Lessiack. When that was done, I moved on to the next grouping.

Great-grandpa Leo flashes the Qui-ote. 1967 0r 1968. The photographer is probably my mom.

Be sure that you scan at at least 400 DPI, and 600 DPI is even better. You want a resolution high enough to enable extreme enlarging in your digital photo tool. Some of my best identification clues came from zooming waaaay in on a tiny detail (like a wall calendar behind the subject, or a sign across the street).

I have two scanners: a small Flip-Pal Mobile scanner that allows me to scan images smaller than 5×7 that are glued into albums, and a large flat-bed scanner that allows me to tackle larger flat images and documents. You definitely don’t want one of the feed-through style scanners because really old paper can’t take the strain. Likewise, I’m not a fan of outsourcing your scanning because most vendors won’t deal with the varying sizes of very old photographs, and no one will take the same exquisite care of your artifacts that you do.

Full disclosure: I have a lot of stuff yet to scan, People. I will probably still be scanning on my deathbed. Coming to peace with the undone is part of the journey. However, I did find it motivating to adopt one basic concept from the professional archive community: the notion of the “closed collection.” A closed collection is one to which no more artifacts will be added. My great-grandpa Leo’s stuff is a closed collection — he will not be adding to it, because he is no longer with us. The crap I shoot on my iPhone is the opposite of a closed collection, because it just grows and grows and grows. If actually finishing something is important to you, pick a closed collection to begin your scanning adventures.

Step 4: Organize your scans.

First, pick a tool. The internet is lousy with advice on the best tools for managing digital images, so I will not recapitulate all of that here. Use the Google and find the tool that works best for you. Many tools offer a 30-day trial before you have to plunk down money.

The sheer size of my archive dictated the use of a professional tool, rather than a consumer-level one. I started out using Aperture (which Apple promptly discontinued) to manage my digital image library, but I recently migrated to Adobe Lightroom. I wish I had done it years ago, because I’m finding it to be a much better tool.

If your tool offers the choice to “manage images directly” or “manage images by reference” choose the latter. It’s much more flexible in the end because your stuff won’t be trapped in some arcane, proprietary database. Also, be sure that you save your images in a non-lossy format, such as TIF. The files are much larger, but they won’t degrade with repeated openings as they would if you stored them as JPGs.

Finally, I live by the following golden rule: Keyword every image. My keyword strategy centers around people (lastname firstname maidenname), themes (dogs, ships, birthday parties, etc.), and locations (Panama Canal Zone, Hamburg, etc.). I also keyword publication status (blogged), and mystery people by who they might have known (Leo mystery, Margaret mystery, etc.) Where I know the year, I add that too. Metadata stays with the image, so regardless of which tool you use, keywords are almost always going to be your best bet for locating images.

Keywording example: "Keil, Emma Lessiack" and "Hamburg" and "Hats"

Keywording example: “Keil Emma Lessiack” and “Hamburg” and “Hats”

Mine is not the only keyword strategy that works, but it’s the only one that works for me and the ways in which I use my archive. Your mileage may vary, and your needs are likely to be different than mine. It takes time to develop a keyword strategy that is both scalable and useful. Whatever you do, don’t just load a bunch of images into your catalog without keywording them — as your collection grows, it will become impossible to find anything. If you can assert only one kind of discipline on yourself, make it be this.

Step 5: Have a backup strategy. 

Do not neglect backups. They are essential. Hardware fails all the time, and you don’t want to learn this tough lesson the hard way. The conventional wisdom is that a digital archive should be backed up in three different places and formats.

For me, “backed up” means two local hard drives (one on my desk, one hidden in another room lest I be burglarized), a continuous backup in the cloud via BackBlaze, and an online gallery hosted on SmugMug. I supposed you could consider this blog to be another sort of archive, but I don’t upload high-resolution images, and it is by no means comprehensive. Again, your mileage may vary and you might prefer different methods, but you should not neglect backups, however you choose to accomplish them.

Step 6. When you don’t know, guess.

This is also step 7, 12, 15, 23, and 50. I theorize constantly, and am always on the lookout for data to support or disprove my theories. Staying organized allows me to double back and correct assumptions, make new connections between data points, and find related artifacts quickly.

Guessing has resulted in some amazing connections for me. For example, when I started this project, I knew nothing about my Spielmann relatives, but by correlating my data, guessing identities in my old photographs, and publishing my guesses on my blog, I was able to make contact with several heretofore unknown cousins who corroborated my guesses and allowed me to make much faster progress than I might otherwise have made. One reader thanked me for publishing the only images of our mutual ancestors that she had ever seen. Talk about satisfaction.

My great-great grandmother, Franziska "Fanny" Spielmann, year and photographer unknown.

My great-great grandmother, Franziska “Fanny” Spielmann, year and photographer unknown.

Don’t be discouraged if your family doesn’t show a lot of interest in your hard work. Mine doesn’t, for the most part, and that is perfectly OK. My blog (and the archive it spawned) provide me with great personal fulfillment, and I would work on them whether anyone else cared or not. My point is that you cannot possibly imagine who will care — your fellow nerds are out there, and some day your descendants might be curious. The community of truly committed genealogists is small, kind, and dogged in its pursuit of truth. If you are right, someone will tell you, and if you are wrong, someone will also tell you (and then you should go back and correct your archive). The point is that you shouldn’t be shy about guessing, sharing what you know, or displaying the artifacts you have. You might open a whole new horizon for someone else’s research. This happens fairly often for me, and there is no feeling like it. I treasure the connections I’ve made as a result of this work.

Happy archiving, People. If you find something interesting, give me a holler.


23 comments on “The Method Behind the Madness

  1. Su Leslie
    January 7, 2016

    Reblogged this on Shaking the tree and commented:
    This is WAAY too good advice not to share.


  2. Su Leslie
    January 7, 2016

    One day (really, honestly) … I will (truly) manage to be more organised with my family archive. In the meantime, at least I have some good advice to get me started. Thanks so much for posting this. Cheers, Su.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Pancho
      January 7, 2016

      You are very welcome. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Pancho
      January 7, 2016

      You are not alone, my friend. There are waaay more things on my To Do list than there are on my Done list.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Su Leslie
        January 8, 2016

        Guess that’s the nature of the beast 🙂


  3. Sheryl
    January 7, 2016

    I enjoyed reading the steps you suggest. I especially liked the one about establishing categories even if they are wrong. It seems a little counter-intuitive , but it makes so much sense to me..


    • Pancho
      January 7, 2016

      Honestly, it was the only way to make progress. Some of the categories lasted and some of them proved wrong (and may yet do) but without them I would have been running in circles, so to speak.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Luanne @ TFK
    January 7, 2016

    Fabulous info. I can really relate to you saying you will still be scanning on your deathbed. I sure hope somebody will take over from us!


  5. Jana Last
    January 7, 2016

    Excellent post! Thank you for sharing your archiving methods with us.


    • Pancho
      January 8, 2016

      You’re very welcome, Jana. Thanks for visiting.


  6. joannesisco
    January 8, 2016

    I’m visiting via Su Leslie and this post reflects my experience exactly after my parents passed away.
    Armed with boxes full of photos, I felt compelled to do something with them rather than just toss them away.
    I used an approach virtually identical to yours. Over the past 5 years I’ve had some unexpected breakthroughs that have made me ridiculously happy 🙂
    Yes – I think I’m going to still be scanning on my deathbed too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pancho
      January 8, 2016

      Welcome, kindred spirit! The breakthroughs really do thrill me, and I have such a greater appreciation for the trials and joys of my ancestors now. Thanks for visiting.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Amy
    January 8, 2016

    What a great post! I am definitely saving this one. I don’t have many original documents unfortunately. Most of what I have are scans of photographs or at best photocopies of vital records. But even those need to be preserved in some way. Thanks for this advice!


    • Pancho
      January 8, 2016

      So right, Amy. I add those sorts of things all the time, but when they join my collection, they also get keyworded and filed in such a way that I (with any luck) will be able to find them again when I need them.


  8. Jana Last
    January 8, 2016


    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!


  9. thegenealogygirl
    February 11, 2016

    Great post Leslie! I just inherited a large collection that was my grandmother’s. Add that to the other Grandma’s stuff and I have a huge project ahead of me so this is exactly what I have been thinking about and just beginning to work on. I loved reading you thoughts. They clarified some of my own thinking. Thank you.


    • Pancho
      February 11, 2016

      So happy the info is helpful! The The post makes it all seem much more tidy and linear than it actually was, but I will be following my own advice going forward. Good luck on your project.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Christine J Randall
    December 20, 2016

    Thanks for the great advice on creating scanned photos especially sizing and using the tiff format. (I came over from Su’s blog.)


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