Preserving Family History,  Scrapbooking Family History

Power Scrapbooking: Labeling Hard Copy Photos

How many of you have a stacks of photos that look like this?

Unorganized Photo Drama
Aaackkk!!! They’re everywhere!

For the vast majority of folks with this kind of photo collection, your photos are on glossy photo paper. The proper term is a coated paper. In any case, what you need to label these photos is NOT A BALLPOINT pen!!!

Chances are, you had some relatives (or yourself) who wrote on the photos with a ball point pen, and it created indents on the other side of the picture. Back in the 70s and 80s, archival quality pens were not readily available. If someone has written in ball point pen, praise them for doing their best to record the who, what, and why behind the photos. Things could have been worse. Your mound of photos could have no names, dates, and places and the people who know those facts are no longer living.

If you have photos that are unlabeled, you will want to label them. Yes, you’ll eventually want to digitize them. For now, label them with an archival quality pen such as the ones sold at Michael’s in the scrapbook section by Pigma. You’ll notice many of the pens come in a variety of colors and thickness of the pen tip. I prefer a medium-fine tip and the color black.

If your photo collection has old paper backed photos, you should use a soft lead pencil. One traditional archivist pencil is made by Stabilo. You can purchase a pack of 6 for $9.95 from

Practice on a sheet of paper to see how much pressure you typically write with and determine if you need to be more or less firm when you write on the actual photos. You don’t want to smash the tip or press too hard to repeat the ball point ‘etching’ problems of days gone by.

Label Your Photos... Best Thing for Family History
Label photos with Pigma pens

In an ideal world, you’ll write on your pictures in a clean, dry workspace while wearing white, cotton-knit gloves.  If you work in a less than ideal situation, do your best to focus on a flat surface that is dry. You want to reduce the possibility of bending your photos more. Clean and dry your hands well before working. Then be as careful as you can to keep your fingers off of the print side of the photo print. (Remember how your mom yelled at you to keep your hands on the edges of your print in the 80s? No? Well, mine did.)

Do the best you can. What is important is that you did your best to label the who, what, and where of a photo on the back so that this information stays together in the future.

For these tips and more, order your copy of
Power Scrapbooking today!

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.


  • Wendy

    As often as I go to Michaels, I had no idea they sold archival anything. I have labeling on my to-do list. I thought about actually writing on a label and then sticking the label on the back of the photo, but maybe that's just too much work if the archival pen is available.

  • Devon Lee


    First off, welcome to genealogy! You're starting at the right place… PHOTOS! Good job.

    If you're using labels and it's working for you, keep it up. If it gets tedious, use a pen/pencil. As much as I HATE my handwriting, I love seeing the handwriting of my mother. Perhaps my kiddos will feel the same. That's something to consider. Truth be told, it's better to do something rather than nothing.

    You have a GREAT question for what to do with the photos when you're done. I would sort anything less that 5×7 in a archival photo box (You can get these at Michael's Craft Supply Store or Hobby Lobby). I organize my photos by one box for 'Dad's Line" and one box for "Mom's Line". Then I organize by year and use the dividers that are in the photo box.

    For larger photos, it will depend upon the size of the photo. 8x10s can fit in a file folder and you can dedicate a files folder box for photos and documents. If you have larger photos, perhaps a 12×12 archival box (again, sold at a Craft Store in the Scrapbook section or at a Scrapbook store, if you have one nearby). Anything larger, I'm not certain. Hope this makes sense, if it doesn't I'll try again.

    Best of luck and keep stopping by so we can cheer on your progress!

  • Anonymous

    I should look in to a archival pen but i have been sticking small labels on the back and writing on the photos that way. I'm just starting out with genealogy research and have so many photos to label and scan.What is the best way to store all these photos once they are scanned and other documents?

  • Devon Lee

    Wendy, I have done the label thing in the past and I found it too much work. I just went to Michael's two weeks ago and found the pens. They are in the scrapbooking section. There are a lot of color choices, but I stick with black.

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