What can you do with boxes in the attic?
Preserve, share good memories while downsizing
If you’ve ever tried to clear out your attic, basement or garage, you’ve likely unearthed treasures you’ll never be able to part with. Your wedding album, for one thing. Or yellowing scrapbooks, loose photographs, VHS tapes and slide carousels.
What exactly should you do with these items that represent precious memories of a life well lived? How can you pass them on to children or grandchildren in a way that conveys their importance?
First and most importantly, move your important memorabilia to protect it.
“Attics, basements and garages are horrible places to store these things. If you have to integrate it into your living space, where it’s climate controlled, how do you do that?” asked Ronda Barrett, a former documentary maker based in Maryland.
Barrett, who founded a company in 2006 called Honor Your Story, interviews everyday people, records them and creates films about their lives.
“There’s nothing like capturing the glint in someone’s eye and hearing their voice and having that record,” Barrett said.
In addition to filming mini-documentaries, Barrett also creates online archives for families. In effect, she helps clients organize and digitize family home videos and photos so they can store them on a website that’s accessible to all family members, no matter where they live.
“It’s a place where everyone can add information about the photo and memories about it,” Barrett said.
Scanning services may help
If you have an overpacked attic, you can hire someone to help you cull through and organize your mementos. Those experts are called photo managers. Their professional organization offers an online directory of certified members at thephotomanagers.com.
You can skip that step and just take your photos to a local photo shop such as National Photo in Pikesville, which can professionally scan photographs in large batches. The shop scans everything and stores the digital files on a USB drive. Then you can simply download everything to your photo library at home. Then the shop returns the originals.
Many mail-in scanning services, such as Digmypics.com, make the process just as simple. You drop your photos in the mail, and they’re scanned and put on a DVD or a website in less than a week, all for about 30 cents per slide or 12 cents per photo. Then the originals are mailed back to you (you usually pay for shipping).
Never throw out the originals, Barrett said. Even though your memories are more protected when they’re in digital format, hard drives and USB ports can be damaged and may need updating in the future.
“It’s not like a vault,” Barrett said of the digital records. “It’s more like a garden you have to tend to.”
DIY if you have time
Of course, people can save money by buying a scanner and doing it themselves. Basic slide or photo scanners cost less than $100.
“It’s a simple process, but it’s very time-intensive,” Barrett said.
Or consider a free local resource: The Baltimore County Public Library’s Reisterstown branch has a Preservation Station. Anyone with a library card can digitize audio tapes, videos, photos, floppy discs and 35 mm film negatives. Bring your own USB drive on which to save all the files, and call ahead to make an appointment at the Preservation Station (see number below).
Use your smartphone
For an even faster method, capture your old photos by simply snapping a picture of them on your smartphone and storing the resulting digital images using a free cloud storage app. You can even use the edit feature on your phone to tweak the color or brightness.
Same goes for that crumbling artwork from your child’s elementary school days or your old college degrees. If you can’t part with it, take a picture of it instead, then feel free to throw away (or recycle) the original. Handwritten notes or letters can also be preserved by taking a photo of them with a smartphone or digital camera.
When it comes to handwritten letters, if you’d like to transcribe them, a good trick is to read the letter aloud using a smartphone app such as Otter, which transcribes audio. If any of your historic letters are related to wartime, consider donating them to the Center for American War Letters.
Make your own book
Whether you’ve paid a service to digitize your photos or scanned them yourself, consider creating a photo book. That’s a great way to incorporate these tucked-away images into your daily life.
Websites such as Shutterfly or Snapfish make it relatively easy to upload your digital photos and arrange them in an attractive hard- or soft-bound book at a reasonable price. (Sign up on their websites for notices of regular sales.)
You’ll want to set aside several hours to make a book, as the process can be quite time-consuming for first-timers or perfectionists.
“The nice thing about the coffee table book is that you can open it and read a few pages, and then come back to it when you’re having your morning coffee,” Barrett said. “The videos are wonderful, but [watching them] feels more like an event.”
For a unique tribute to a relative, tell their story or publish their photographs in newspaper format. Mitchell Weitzman, a Baltimore resident who launched a company called Legacy Times, writes custom articles about his client’s lives. Then he prints out the page on posterboard that resembles a real newspaper.
Weitzman meets with people in person or over the phone to ask questions so he can distill their lives into a front-page article.
“What is the pivotal moment that you want to capture?” he asks them. “It could be somebody who invented something, or maybe they worked as a volunteer at a church or synagogue and got an award. That would be the headline, and that’s what I build the story around,” said Weitzman, who as a child liked to create mock newspapers.
The final product, a 13-by-19-inch front page, includes real newspaper headlines from the same time period.
Many other services exist to help you combine written or recorded memories and photos into a family biography or other keepsake, sometimes with the help of professional writers.
Sound daunting? Try to find a few minutes to transfer your photographs from a shoebox, which contains acid, to leather binders or photo boxes, widely available at craft stores like Michaels or Joann Fabrics.
“At the very least, get those photos out of those damaging conditions and into your living space,” Barrett advised.
And use a pencil to jot down a date or name on the edge of each photo, she said. “I can’t stress how important it is to capture what you know about an image — identifying who, what, where and when if possible.
“We all know the thrill of seeing a photo of an ancestor and searching for family resemblances,” Barrett said. “But to see a photo of your great grandfather from 1922 in front of the store where he worked as a stock boy and eventually purchased and ran the business himself tells us something else about the legacy from which you descend.
“Those details shape the stories of what we know is possible, what our roots have shown us we can overcome and what we can achieve.”
To get started, contact:
Center for American War Letters: (714) 532-7716, firstname.lastname@example.org
Honor Your Story: (301) 395-5989
Legacy Times: (410) 343-9302
National Photo: (410) 486-2006
Preservation Station at Reisterstown branch library: (410) 887-1165