Preserving Your Church’s Digital Photographs
Zachary Bodnar, CLA Archivist
The transition from film photography to digital photography has been long and ongoing. Now, with the ubiquity of smart phones, nearly everyone carries a decent quality digital camera at all times. The result of this development is that we can photograph nearly everything in our daily life, from the mundane moments of living to the soaring heights of a boisterous shared event. However, though we can now capture in image and video more and more of our life, the proliferation of digital photography does, perhaps ironically, make the preservation of those memories all the more difficult.
Whereas a church event of the past may have had only a single person with a camera and only one roll of film, today, a similar church event likely has dozens of people with cameras and essentially limitless “film.” As a result, where in the past an event might have produced only a single envelop of photographs, today’s event may produce hundreds of digital photographs. For a church archive, or truthfully for any archive, this sudden influx of digital photographs can seem overwhelming and scary. How can churches go about preserving these digital records, when the volume of digital photographs can pretty much only grow?
For starters, churches can look at cloud services, such as Microsoft OneDrive. Google Photos, or Dropbox. While the long-term viability of any cloud service will be in question (hence why cloud storage isn’t our only suggestion), the short-term benefits are great. Cloud storage is relatively cheap, and files on the cloud are not likely to be lost due to hardware degradation or breakage. If your church can afford it, we do strongly recommend at least backing up digital photographs that enter your archive onto a cloud service.
If the cloud contains your backup copies, then digital photographs saved locally are your primary copies. Digital preservation is fraught and complicated. Hard drives, CDs, and flash drives all have limited lifespans and all are susceptible to environmental damage too. That said, because these are digital files we are talking about, we have to rely on these unreliable storage devices. One of the best practices for local storage, then, is to have multiple devices, each with its own copy of the digital files. For example, you might have two external hard drives, each holding copies of all of your digital files. That way if one device were to break, the other would still be okay. The other best practice to diversify the geographical distribution of those storage devices. At a church, that may be to have one of those external hard drives stored with the rest of the church’s paper records, and the other stored elsewhere in the church building, such as the admin’s office. The idea here is that if something were to happen to one of the rooms, such as a sprinkler breaking, both devices wouldn’t be damaged.
In terms of what device to use for external storage, we almost always recommend external hard drives. They are more stable than CDs and flash drives, and because they are not always turned on, are less likely to fail due to mechanical problems. Still, remember that these are devices with expected lifespans of 10 years, maybe 20 if you are lucky.
Having a place, both locally and on the cloud, to store your digital photographs is one thing, but keeping those photographs organized is also an important part of preservation. The longer photographs remain unorganized, the easier it is to lose any context that would explain the who, what, or why of the photograph’s subject. With the amount of digital photographs that may come in, it is increasingly important that those photographs be organized in some way, and quickly. The simplest form of organization might be to organize photography by chronology. For example you could have a series of top level folders for each year (i.e., 2021, 2022, etc.) and within each folder you have a sub-folder for every month (i.e., November, December, etc.). Another possibility for organization, though more complex, would be to organize photographs by topic. Even here, an annual top level folder may make a lot of sense, but instead of sub-dividing that annual folder into months, sub-divide it into topical folders. Some examples could be “Events” or “Services” or “Weddings” or “Sunday School”. If you have enough information, you can go even further, sub-dividing those topical folders into more specific folders; for example, under “Events” you might have “Thanksgiving Dinner” and “July BBQ.” By organizing your files, you help to ensure that not all context for a photograph’s creation are lost. Just make sure that, whatever organizational method you use, you use it consistently on all of your external devices and your cloud backups.
Now, because digital preservation is its own worst enemy, you can do everything right and still suffer irreparable loss of digital data. This is just an unfortunate reality. The other reality is that paper and physical media continue to be the best preservation media available. Printed photographs are absolutely less likely to be lost to time than their digital counterparts. This is why we also suggest that churches consider creating a policy to print significant photographs from their digital collections. Defining “significant” is always difficult, and will always depend on a church’s specific context, but by defining “significant,” churches can help to ensure that some portion of their digital photographs have physical equivalents that are unlikely to be lost due to the vagaries of digital storage technology.
Photographs taken on a smart phone do tend to be of lower quality than photographs taken on traditional film cameras or digital SLR cameras. This is due to both hardware and software limitations on the part of the phone. However, the differences likely aren't super apparent to the naked eye, so there is no significant downside to printing digital photographs apart from the costs of printing digital photographs and the space used to store those physical photographs. But that is why we suggest only printing “significant” and “important” photographs, however your church, archivist, and/or records committee defines those words.
If your church does decide to print out digital photographs, or in general if your church still has photographs that need archiving, we always suggest using polypropylene archival photo sleeves. Once placed in such sleeves, you can use three ring binders to store your photographs. In terms of handling photographs, it is always best to handle them while wearing white cotton gloves, though if those are unavailable, it isn't too much of an issue to handle them with your bare hands. If you are handling photographs with your bare hands, it is best to only touch the photographs on their sides and back and to avoid touching the face of the photograph. We also always recommend identifying the photographs in some way. At minimum, write the date of the photograph on the back of the photograph, though if more information about a photograph or its subjects is known, adding that information will also be appreciated by future generations and archivists alike.
Digital preservation is not easy, but increasingly we all must begin to think about it because more and more of our records and memories exist in purely digital worlds. While digital preservation is less art and more a Frankenstein of methodologies and best practices, it can be done. Digital photographs are a great place to begin thinking about digital preservation due to the importance, both emotional and historical, of photographs. The above recommendations are not exhaustive, and they won’t be universal either, but they are a place to start.
If ever you or your church needs more specific advice, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We at the Congregational Library & Archives are here to support you and your endeavors to preserve your church's memory, mission, and history.