How to Digitally Archive and Share Historical Photographs, Documents, and Audio Recordings

Chapter 4. Documention for Historical Images

Key Points.

·        Documentation is essential for the long-term historical value of archived digital images.

·        Simple text files are the most reliable way to assure that documentation is accessible for at least 50 years. A text file with documentation can have the same file name as the digital image, but with .txt as the extension.

·        Essential information for a documentation file is:

o   Name of the file with the image

o   Date or estimated date that a photograph was taken or that a document was created

o   Basic description of the contents of the master image

o   Additional comments and information about the master image

o   For a photograph, the name of the original photographer

o   The source or name of the person who provided the photograph or document for the digital archive

o   Information about the creation of the digital image

o   Information about legal rights for the digital image

·        The documentation should be updated as new information becomes available.



A photograph has much greater historical value if information is available about where and when it was taken and about any people in the photograph. This documentation and information about who provided the item for the archive are essential components of a historical archive. The term metadata is often used to describe this information about a particular item. The information needs to be recorded in a way that can be propagated with the photograph over the long-term. Without such documentation, the information about historical items depends on the memory of certain individuals and has a high probability of being lost.

The effort required to initially record the information is vastly less than the effort to try to recover it decades later when the people with direct knowledge are no longer available or no longer remember. Unfortunately, people often do not think about recording information until the source of the information is no longer reliably available. A basic system for documenting information about each item is a central part of a historical archive. The documentation for an item may need to be updated as new information becomes available. The documentation system should easily handle these updates.

A museum, library, or website with historical photographs will typically have a database system for managing the historical items and associated information. This Chapter does not review the database systems that are available, or discuss the updates and conversions to new systems that will be needed when such systems are used. These database systems tend to change frequently as technology evolves and the conversions require great effort and planning, as well as significant expense.

The primary purposes of this chapter are to describe what information needs to be recorded for historical items and how to record the information in a way that is easily distributed and will be reliably available at least 50 years in the future. Database systems that require maintenance and upgrades cannot be expected to be functioning in 50 years and are not suitable for these goals. The historical information needs to be documented in a way that can be put into the database systems, but the basic documentation strategy described here has much greater longevity and ease of distribution. Also, the database systems usually are limited to certain fields or types of information and to certain amounts of information in each field.

The strategy described here has no limitations on the type and amount of information that can be recorded, and the documentation for an item can be easily updated. This documentation includes the essential information specified for institutional database standards such as Dublin Core (CDP Metadata Working Group, 2006).

4.1 Text Files for Documentation

The most reliable way to store this type of information over the long-term is in simple text files. Text files store only basic characters. They do not directly handle formatting such as different fonts or underlining. Text files are one of the oldest and most reliable types of computer files, and they will be reliably accessible 50 years in the future. The extension for the name of a text file is .txt. Providing the documentation in a separate file allows the documentation to be easily updated with no impact on the primary archival image file.

Microsoft Notepad is the default software for editing text files on a computer with the Windows operating system. Notepad is found under Accessories or Microsoft Accessories on the list of programs from the Start button in the lower left corner of a computer running Windows. Microsoft Word can also process text files if the output file is specified as “Plain Text” in the Save As output option. I use the UltraEdit program, which is highly optimized for handling text files (about $60). Different editing programs handle wrapping at the end of a line differently. It is generally more reliable to tap the Enter key at the end of a line rather than to let the line wrap automatically. The free IrfanView image viewing program can display text files as well as image files, and can be used to browse both the image and documentation files.

The text file for documentation can be given the same name as the master image, but the extension is .txt instead of .tif. For example, the master image of a photograph of John Smith taken in 1925 could be named 1925_John_Smith.tif. The document file for this image would be 1925_John_Smith.txt. Only one document file is needed for related master images, such as the front and back of a postcard.

Searches for particular words can easily be done with text files to find images that have certain contents. For example, the Windows search options can be set to search for certain words in all files with a .txt extension in a certain folder. UltraEdit has more powerful searching capabilities.

It is relatively easy to develop a program or script that can read information in text files and import it into a database system. The ideal long-term strategy for handling historical digital images would be to develop a web-based front end that would read all image and document files in specified folders and display the information as web pages that can be easily navigated and searched.

4.2 Contents of Documentation

Certain information is essential in documenting an archival image, and other information can be considered optional. The topics or sections for the information in a documentation file are described below. An example of a documentation file is given in Panel 4.1, which is the documentation for photograph 1.1 in Chapter 1. This example has more information than will be available for many photographs, but it represents the amount of information that would be valuable to have. This degree of documentation can easily be achieved if the documentation is prepared while the people with the information are still available.



Panel 4.1. Example Documentation File for a Photograph

File: 1933c_in_Yoder_store

Date of Photograph: c. 1933

Description: Inside the Beachy Store in Yoder, Kansas. Susie Beachy is standing behind the counter. The post office is in front and a heating stove is in the back.

Signs on the wall in the post office area include "Do not spit on the floor" and "This post office is a business institution, not a loafing place. Orderly conduct - clean habits - no loitering." Close-up examination reveals Hamms beer signs in back and a display of seeds for sale.

Comments: Susie was the wife of Dave Beachy who owned the store at the time of the photo. This is the north (oldest) store building in lot 9 on the west side of Main Street. Date of the photo was estimated based on Susie’s age and other dates given here. Dave bought the store in February, 1930 and was postmaster in Yoder from April, 1929 to 1964. The Post Office was in the store during this time.

The main sources of information about this picture were Vernon Beachy (Dave and Susie's oldest son) and county deed records. The standing box-like object just past the post office was a Zenith radio that was sold at the store. Cooking was done with a kerosene cook stove in the little room on the left in back behind the curtains. The main food sold was hamburgers. The heating stove in back burned coal.

Vernon thinks the tables on the right front were used as the office for the community sales (auctions) that Dave Beachy managed. The sales were held on Mondays on land across the street, and were ongoing when Dave bought that land in 1933. Susie ran the lunch counter on days when a sale was held.

Dave Beachy’s diary indicates that beer was sold in the store until May, 1937 when the 3-2 beer law went into effect in Kansas.

One copy of this photo was mounted on a board that said "Interior of General store and post office­--1930s".   

Photographer: Dave Beachy

Source: Vernon Beachy

Image: Scanned by Jim Kennedy as 16-bit grayscale from the original negative 4 by 2.2 inches. Epson V500 scanner.

Legal Rights: (as assessed July 12, 2011) Heirs to Dave Beachy hold copyright through 2060. Authorization has been given for any use of this digital image by anyone.


 [additional documentation about legal rights is described in Chapter 9]


Name of File:

This section has the name of the computer file with the digital image. The extension (usually .tif) can be included or left off. Only one document file will be needed when there are multiple master images that are different aspects of one item, such as different pages of a letter or a close-up image of a photograph. The file name for the first or base image is specified without the codes that indicate related images.

Date of Photograph or Date of Document:

The date is specified with whatever degree of precision is available. This is the date the original photograph was taken, not the date that a particular paper print was made. A complete date can be given if known, or just month and year, or just year. If the year is approximate, then circa, c., or about can be used, such as “c. 1920.”


The description of the main contents of the image is key information that can be searched to find photographs about certain subjects. This description typically notes information that can be seen in the photograph. At a minimum, the primary contents of the photograph are noted. Providing more detail is optional. I usually note the main features of the photograph and do not try to list every item in the photograph. Noteworthy information that is present but not obvious also can be listed, as in the example in Panel 4.1. Speculations or information that has some uncertainty are included in the comments section below rather than in this description.


The comments section has additional information about the photograph or document. This can include how the date was determined or estimated, who identified the people in a photograph, and what was written on a photograph. Think about and include information for people two or more generations in future. Notes about other photographs or documents that may be related and information about the general context of the photograph or document may be appropriate. Information that involves some uncertainty can also be included in this section, with the uncertainty noted.

This section can greatly enhance the historical value of a photograph. The information is best obtained from those close to the original photograph. The information can be virtually impossible to obtain after those people are no longer available. A museum or historical association will rarely be able to devote the effort needed to obtain this type of information if it is not provided with the item.


This is the name of the person who originally took the photograph. “Unknown” can be used. The documentation for an item that is not a photograph will not have this section. For example, a letter will typically have the author and recipient named in the Description section.


The source is the person who provided the photograph or document for the digital archive.


This section has information about the creation of the digital image. Information that I have often used and sometimes regretted not recording includes:

·        the name of the person or organization that created the digital image,

·        the type of item that was scanned (e.g., negative, slide, original print, copy print, original document, or copy of original document),

·        the dimensions of the original item—which is particularly important if a camera is used for digitization,

·        the color mode and bit depth (8 or 16 bit grayscale, or 24 or 48 bit color),

·        the color space of the master image, particularly for color images,

·        the model of the scanner or camera,

·        note if infrared dust and scratch correction and/or grain reduction was done at the time of scanning,

·        note if multiple related images were made.

Information on the type of source item is very valuable. If another version of the item is found later, this information will be used to determine which is the original or is closer to the original. The size of the original item is essential if a camera is used for digitization because the original size cannot be determined from the image. The model of scanner is particularly important for 35 mm film because there is so much variation in the quality of results. Information about the size of a scanned item and the model of the scanner or camera is sometimes automatically stored internally in the image file. However, not all software provides the internal documentation and I have wanted this information so frequently that I put it in the documentation file rather than rely on the less reliable and less accessible internal information.

Legal Rights:

Information about legal rights is very important and is discussed in Chapter 9.

Other Optional Information

Including the date of the last modification of the document file can be useful when document files are updated after copies have been distributed. Assuming the updates are based on corrections or new information, the dates will indicate which version is the latest. The most complete management of the documentation file would be to have a section that describes the sequence of changes to the file.

Historical organizations typically have a title and unique identification number or code for each digital image. These identifiers are essential for large collections that are managed with a database. However, I have not found titles or identification codes useful for relatively small digital archives and consider them optional. If digital images are donated to a historical organization, the organization will have its own system for creating titles and identification codes.

Some organizations also keep more detail on the digitization process, including date of digitization, resolution, output file format, and file size. I have not found these useful and consider them optional. Most of this information can be determined from the master image in the rare event that the information is needed.

 4.3 Estimating the Date of a Photograph

Estimating the date that a photograph was taken is a key step, and sometimes a significant obstacle. For photographs taken indoors, the first strategy is to look for calendars on the wall. It is surprising how often a calendar is in the background and can be read with enlargement. In some cases, the year cannot be read but the month and the day of the week for the first day of the month can be discerned. An internet search will find calendars for a given year (for example, “calendar 1910”). A little exploration will quickly find the years that had the first day of the month on a certain day of the week. Because these repeat only about every seven years, a good estimate for year can often be obtained. Enlarging car license plates to see the year is another useful possibility. The approximate age of children in a photograph can also provide a useful estimate for the date of the photograph if the birthdates of the children are known.

When there is no direct information about date, developing an estimate that is within two years is a reasonable goal. One of the most useful methods to estimate the date is to obtain other photographs of the subject matter taken at different times. The photographs can usually be put in chronological order and the date estimated from this sequence and information about some of the photographs. This requires paying attention to details in the photographs, including things in the background as well as the primary subject. Working with magnifying glasses or digital enlargements is standard procedure. Changes in hairstyles for a person or improvements to a building such as adding a gutter along the roof can provide important clues. The dates of automobiles can often be estimated by looking at automobiles produced in different years. Pictures of cars for any year can be found with internet searches (e.g., on Google click Images and then search for “Ford 1910” or “car 1910”).

Useful introductions to the methods for analyses and research to identify the date and location of a photograph can be found in writings by Maureen Taylor (2000) and Helena Zinkham (2006). The book Forensic Genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick (2005) provides a mind-expanding discussion of the possibilities. A surprising amount of information can be extracted once a person gets into the mindset for these analyses.

Different codes stamped on negatives and slides also can be used to determine when the film was produced or developed. The Historic Photo Archive Website (see references) describes the changes in the wording, symbols, and colors Kodak placed on Kodachrome slides over the years. The use of edge markings to determine the date of 35 mm film is also described.

4.4 Potential Abuse

Unfortunately, basic genealogical information is now commonly used for security questions for various financial and business accounts. Common security questions include a person’s date of birth, place of birth, and mother’s maiden name. However, this information is also routinely provided in genealogical documents and is very useful for historical purposes. Widespread distribution of this information about living persons is currently unwise due to the possibility of identity theft. This concern also brings into focus the importance of using security questions that are more private.

Documentation for photographs that may be distributed widely must be done with awareness of potential abuses. Publication of exact birth date, birth location, and mother’s maiden name for living persons should be avoided. The year of birth without month or day is often adequate for historical purposes. Or, the year and month could be given, but the actual day of the month withheld. Given the increasing risks emerging with modern technology, it may be wise to avoid giving full dates for historical purposes in any case that the year alone or year and month would be adequate.

4.5 Internal Documentation for Digital Images

TIFF and JPEG digital files can contain limited documentation internally. The IPTC fields in the image file can hold information about the content, owner, and legal rights for the image. This information must be entered by a person. The EXIF fields hold technical information about the image, such as the format (TIFF or JPEG), resolution, number of pixels on each side, model of camera or scanner that was used to create the image, date the image was created, date the image was last modified, and various settings on the camera or scanner. This information is produced by the software for the scanner or camera. Not all scanner and camera software put this information in the output files.

Software for viewing and editing images increasingly displays the internal information. The internal information can be displayed with the Windows operating system by right clicking on an image file, selecting Properties, and then clicking the Details tab. Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements allow the internal information to be viewed and modified. Click Files and then File Info. The tab labeled Description has the basic IPTC information and the tab labeled Camera Data has the EXIF information.

The IPTC fields have limited value for archival images. This internal information is an emerging technology and the reliability over a 50-year period is uncertain. The display and editing of this information is not nearly as easy or as flexible as with a separate text document file. These fields are not designed to be frequently updated as occurs with the documentation for historical photographs. Also, the fields are primarily intended to specify copyright information for newly created images. The complicated copyrights for inherited historical photographs as described in Chapter 9 may require more lengthy explanation than these fields and the associated software are designed to handle.

At present, the internal information fields do not reliably replace external documentation for historical photographs. From my perspective, the use of these internal fields is optional. The information in them is redundant with the more complete external documentation. Also, the internal documentation in image files apparently is not used by internet search engines (Riecks, 2010). The search engines focus on the titles, labels, and descriptions associated with the image on the webpage linking the image.


CDP Metadata Working Group, 2006. “CDP Dublin Core Metadata Best Practices Version 2.1” currently available at (web.archive of file no longer on original website).

Fizpatrick, Colleen, 2005. Forensic Genealogy. Published by Rice Book Press in Fountain Valley, CA.

Historic Photo Archive, no date, “Kodachrome Slide Dating Guide” accessed on June 26, 2011 at  (web.archive of webpage no longer on original website).

Historic Photo Archive, no date, “Kodak 35mm & 16mm Film Date Code Information” accessed on June 26, 2011at (web.archive of webpage no longer on original website).

Riecks, David, 2010. “Why Embedded Photo Metadata Won't Help Your SEO (at least without some help)” accessed August 25, 2011 at

Taylor, Maureen, 2000, Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs. Published by Betterway Books in Cincinnati, OH.

Zinkham, Helena, 2006. “Reading and Researching Photographs” in Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler & Diane Vogt-O’Connor (editors) Photographs: Archival Care and Management (pages 59-77). Published by the Society of American Archivists in Chicago, IL.



[Version of 10/22/2015 — updated links and some grammar]