The first step on the way to building a family tree

Our home archives are the most valuable source when we are beginning our genealogical research.

Any documents, such as files from the registrar’s office (birth, marriage, death certificates) but also report cards, identification cards, military identity cards, wills, and other documents of this kind are an invaluable source of information for a genealogist.

It is also important to meet with the oldest family members and try to obtain as much information as possible from them.

Very important documents also include family photographs.

Notes on photographs

Making notes on the reverse side of photographs used to be a custom. It is there that one may find valuable pieces of information, like dates, dedications, or other important information about the people portrayed in the photographs or the circumstances and place of taking the pictures. Those frozen film frames from the lives of our ancestors are exceptionally valuable keepsakes which will help us recreate the history of our family.

If there are no notes on the backs of the photographs, it is a good idea to try to reconstruct that data during family gatherings attended by the oldest members of our kin. As far as possible, we should try to complete the most important data. It is best to annotate photographs using a soft pencil. Over time and due to moisture, ink, marker, or ballpoint pen may become less legible or even damage the photograph.

Let us also remember to make the captions legible and clear. If we are not able to give a precise data, we can always give a supposed time period. When it comes to information relating to people, it is best if they include the person’s first and last name. Notes like, for example, “my grandma, mum, and me” should be avoided. It is important to make sure that even our descendants will be able to identify the people in the photograph.

Family albums prepared in this way will be a valuable keepsake for the entire family.

Storing documents and albums

It turns out that many a time, paper photographs have survived longer than contemporary ones which were saved on digital data carriers. Probably each of us has happened to lose those kinds of albums as a result of an unfortunate formatting of the drive or damaging the carrier. It is a good idea to create parallel paper versions of our albums.

Paper documents and photographs should be stored in a dry place which is not exposed to sunlight, so that they will not fade. For the storage of traditional photographs, it is best to use old-type albums (with black pages). It is also important to remember not to glue photographs directly onto the pages but instead use special cardboard photo corners into which pictures are inserted.

Keeping pictures in plastic sleeves or foil significantly speeds up the ageing of photographs. Moreover, they may become stuck to the foil. On the other hand, storing them loose causes the edges to curl.

While organising pictures in an album, it is good to adhere to the chronology, as far as it is possible.

Documents and albums are not to be stored in basements, attics, or garages where they can become damp. Moisture can irrevocably ruin every photograph. You have probably noticed that pre-war photographs are often more durable than those from the late 20th century. This is the case due to the worse quality of paper and other materials used extensively since the 1960s. In the past, photography was a sign of a certain prestige, of social status; photographs were made primarily by professional photographers. Some photographs were even being pasted to a thin layer of plywood. Unfortunately, this kind of pictures was at risk of being damaged by woodworms. What follows is an example of a picture damaged by woodworms:

Scan the most valuable photographs

This is not only an excellent way to secure copies of old pictures, but it will also be very helpful during the process of making a family tree. They will enrich the archives which will be easy to share with other family members.

Additionally, we can annotate a scanned picture with valuable information without damaging the original photograph.

There are companies that specialise in reading information shown in a picture. Those pieces of information may include, for example, those concerning the place of taking the picture, the social status, belonging to an army unit, etc.

Old photographs often depict buildings which no longer exist. They can be a valuable source of information for historians or cultural institutions.


Working on organising photographs may be arduous, but it will likely bring us much satisfaction and possibly help us discover surprising family stories. Apart from that, it is also an opportunity for family gatherings and saving our ancestors’ history from oblivion.

The prepared albums will surely remain a valuable keepsake for our entire family.

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