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Posts from the ‘Preserving Records’ Category

The Debate Over the Ethics of Photo Restoration

At first glance, one might question how photography and genealogy are linked. The reality is, however, that a big part of genealogy and historical research is simply basic detective work.

To do a complete study of an ancestor’s past, a genealogist or family historian needs to put on their detective’s hat, turn over every stone and investigate every clue at their disposal. And old photographs just happen to provide a wealth of such clues — clues about what our ancestors looked like, where and how they lived, possibly what kind of job they had, what their likely economic status was, and what their hobbies were. Group photos, in particular, are also very helpful in solving mysteries about family relationships and other missing links.

So yes, collecting and studying old family photographs has become both an accepted and expected part of modern genealogy. This reality aside, however, what can be said about the growing trend of photo restoration?

Photo Restoration Defined

In the context of historical photos, “photo restoration” in the strictest sense, is defined as the practice of using tools to repair a photo to what one assumes was its original appearance. Typically, this includes repairing the evidence of tears, removing scratches or cracks, correcting fading or color damage caused by sunlight or other environmental factors, and removing stains, mold, or other damage that was not present when the photo was originally created.

In the past, such restoration efforts required a trained professional who used the likes of air brushes, natural hair brushes, erasers, charcoal, various pencils, paints and knives to work their magic. In today’s digital era, such photo restoration can be accomplished by anyone with a computer, a scanner, photo editing software (such as Adobe Photoshop) and a little patience.

Of course, as with anything, some individuals are more skilled than others at using such tools. This, and the fact that one person’s assumption of what the original photo looked like might not be the same as someone else’s, is what creates some of the controversy over what is commonly referred to as the “ethics” of photo restoration.

Differing Opinions Amongst Historians and Genealogists

There are some historians and genealogists who believe that ANY alteration of an original image is unethical — even if such alteration is simply repairing damage caused by time, the elements or neglect. Such purists believe that any damage to the original image simply explains the historical “journey” that the photo experienced over the years and should be preserved as the character of the image in its current form. They also question the judgement or ability of the restorer in being able to actually restore the image to its original form (as opposed to perhaps mistakenly altering some piece of the image that was historically relevant).

In contrast to the opinion of such purists, there are other historians and genealogists who actively support the practice of photo restoration. At the heart of their support is a desire to honor their ancestors by returning their photos to an unstained, untorn, non-discolored state and sharing such repaired images with as many family members as possible. Backing up their thinking on this are the efforts of art conservationists who have painstakingly restored the works of such masters as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinchi and Raphael. A family historian of this thinking could argue that, if the Vatican thought it appropriate to restore the painted walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come, then families deserve no less.

My Personal Opinion

Personally, I lean more to the camp of those who support and encourage photo restoration. After all, my entire approach to family history is from the perspective of discovering and preserving a family’s legacy for years to come — an approach that entails uncovering the story of our ancestors by piecing together the many details of their lives with both nuance and emotion. When looking at historical photos, I want to be able to see the details of my ancestors’ faces, the details of the clothes they were wearing and the details of the homes they lived in, without the distraction of scratches, torn edges and discoloration. More importantly, I want future generations to be able to see them in a similar manner, to understand them and to enjoy them as well.

All this said, I do have concern with a growing trend amongst some family genealogists to go beyond simply restoring a photograph and instead manipulating and changing the image to suit their whims. Personally, I don’t see it as productive to embellish historical photos with fancy borders and graphics. Worse yet, I find it troubling when some use Photoshop to remove certain individuals from a photo altogether or to add individuals who weren’t present when the original photo was taken. (I have encountered, for example, photos of families where sons or brothers who were away at war or who, in some cases had even died, were digitally “pasted” into family group photos as if they were present when the photo was taken. I see this as very problematic to a future historian who might not be aware that the photo was altered.)

In my opinion, sensitivity to how a photo appeared in its original form is critically important. Repairing tears, scratches, cracks, fading, discoloration, stains, mold or other damage that occurred over time is not inconsistent with historical principles of preservation. But such repairs should be conducted in a conservative manner; and copies of original photos (damage and wear included) should be made available to family members who request them.

An example of a simple, conservative photo restoration.  (The contrast and tone were balanced; scratches and other surface damage were corrected; shadows were reduced and the overall image was sharpened.)  While the final product is not "perfect", the goal was for modifications to be as minimal as possible, while also allowing for faces to be brightened and the detail of the image more readily visible.)  [Appearing fourth from the left is my grandfather, Joseph Heuisler Tormey, Sr., with his parents and siblings.  The photo was taken in the spring of 1917, just prior to my grandfather leaving for France during World War I.]

An example of a simple, conservative photo restoration. (The contrast and tone were balanced; scratches and other surface damage were corrected; shadows were reduced and the overall image was sharpened.) While the final product is not “perfect”, the goal was for modifications to be as minimal as possible, while also allowing for faces to be brightened and the detail of the image more readily visible.) [Appearing fourth from the left is my grandfather, Joseph Heuisler Tormey, Sr., with his parents and siblings. The photo was taken in the spring of 1917, just prior to my grandfather leaving for France during World War I.]

Consider Adopting a Photo Restoration Protocol

With an eye towards conservative principles, I encourage genealogists and family historians to adopt a photo restoration protocol and to be consistent in following it.

Following is an suggested plan:

1) With the mindset of a preservationist or a museum curator, take steps to secure and preserve original family photographs in an archival-safe, acid-free environment. (There are numerous storage containers on the market developed for exactly this purpose.)

2) Consistent with the approach of such a preservationist, adopt a policy of not manipulating or altering historical photographs in a manner that goes beyond repairing damage. (i.e., Avoid the temptation to embellish or add something that wasn’t in the original photo.)

3) When scanning photos, save original scans in a master file (preferably in a non-degraded TIFF-type format and at as high a resolution as is reasonable, given the limitations of the scanning hardware you are using) Preserve such original scans as your digital masters and be careful not to save altered versions over them. (i.e., When using photo editing software to make repairs to a damaged photo, save such changes as a separate file, rather than overwriting your original scan.)

4) Don’t forget in your preservation efforts to be diligent about identifying the subject of each photo. (Who is pictured in the photo? Where was the photo taken? What was the date, or estimated date, of the photo?) Catalogue and mark the back of original photos with such facts using an acid-free medium, such as a soft, light-colored pencil; and clearly name electronic files with as much identifying detail as possible.


Like it or not, photo restoration efforts are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the world of genealogy. My advice to genealogists and family historians is to embrace the benefits made available with modern photo editing software, but to do so conservatively and in a manner that doesn’t detract from the legacy that your ancestors would want you to inherit and pass on to your own descendants.

Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “The Debate Over the Ethics of Photo Restoration”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted May 1, 2013, ( accessed [access date]).


How to Protect and Preserve Your Genealogical Research after Your OWN Death


To an outsider, genealogy must seem like an inherently morbid pastime. After all, genealogists are obsessed with death records, obituaries, cemeteries, gravestones, estate documents, inheritances, eulogies, death masks, etc., etc.

The truth of the matter is, any form of historical research is a backwards-looking exercise designed to understand and document the past. And yes, death records, obituaries and the like can provide valuable clues in such research. But as a historian and genealogist, have you considered your own demise? Will your own descendants someday have a difficult time piecing together the details of your life because you spent so much time researching and documenting the lives of your ancestors that you forgot to document your own life story? And what of all your research… all the years and decades you spent uncovering your family’s past… all the records you have accumulated… all the old photographs you have discovered… all the boxes of priceless information you have saved??? What will happen to these valued possessions after you are gone?

Following are some thoughts to consider.

Value is Subjective

As a genealogist and family historian, my research files, antique photographs and old family artifacts are some of my most valued possessions. Sadly, though, I have come to learn that not everyone places a similar value on such things.

Years ago, for example, I was saddened to learn that a distant cousin, who had been in possession of some old family photo albums that dated back to the early 1800s, had given away some of these albums to friends. Worse yet, he gave them away to friends as gag gifts when they turned 50 (joking that his friends were becoming as old and antique as the photos in the albums)! Upon learning this, I was horrified at the thought of having forever lost some priceless photos that were of common ancestors I share with this cousin.

In another line of my family, after the death of one of my great-great grandfathers in 1875, his widow turned to her brother for help in managing the family’s extensive land holdings and businesses. In an effort to organize and “simplify” life for his sister, this well-intentioned brother destroyed by fire generations of old family records that he deemed to be of no more value. Gone forever was valuable evidence of the family’s past in Ireland and of all that my great-great grandfather and his father before him had done to build a working plantation on thousands of acres in Maryland.

The moral of this story is to make sure that others understand the value you place on your genealogy and historical records and to take proactive steps to preserve them before they meet a similar fate at the hands of a family member who simply sees them as redundant and useless records of the past.

Focus on Preserving a Legacy

One way to improve the odds that your research materials will survive is to change the focus of your research. The reason many family members see genealogy as boring is because family group sheets, pedigree charts, birth certificates and death certificates ARE boring. And if such things are the bulk of what you have to show for your genealogy hobby, you run the risk that someone else will see them as no different than your completed sudoku and crossword puzzles. If you really want others to see value in your research efforts, you need to bring your research to life. This means that you need to flesh out the details of not just when your ancestors were born and when they died, but how the lived, why they made the decisions they did, what their beliefs and values were, etc. These are the things that make one’s ancestry a heritage or a legacy. Most people want to understand why they have the traits they do, why they look and act the way the do; and a historian who is able to unlock these secrets from the past stands a much greater chance that his or her research will survive the test of time.

Publish Your Results

Most cities and states have historical societies (following is a good list of some of the better known ones: Many also have genealogical societies ( There are, likewise, many national historical and genealogical societies, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Most of these societies typically publish monthly or quarterly journals; and they welcome submissions for publication that are well researched, well documented and of interest to the focus of their organizations. I should add, getting published in such a journal doesn’t require having a famous ancestor that you can write about. Rather, it requires a focus on historical accuracy and being able to share information on how residents, famous or not, lived in historical times in those communities that are the focus of the historical society in question. Again, this is the difference between simple dates of birth and death and a historical narrative that constitutes a legacy. In any case, getting published is a way to preserve the results of your research (as historical and genealogical societies maintain libraries and are passionate about their preservation efforts).

Donate Work of Historical Value to a Library

Depending on the scope and focus of your research collection, some libraries might be interested in accepting your work into their permanent collection. Historical and genealogical societies are typically more interested in historical works than a municipal library, but there are a number of local libraries that do maintain historical archives. Certain college and university libraries may also be interested. There are two important points to remember, however, when attempting to donate your research to a library. First, above all else, be aware that most libraries want organized, bound volumes that are well documented and likely to be of value to their members. (i.e., Don’t expect a library to be interested in a box of disorganized, uncatalogued papers, especially if they are merely family group sheets, pedigree charts and other personal notes.) Secondly, if your goal is entrust your research work to a library, you might find that it is necessary to break your collection into smaller parts and to spread those parts amongst different libraries. (i.e., The New England Historic Genealogical Society might be interested in artifacts and historical writings on your colonial Massachusetts ancestors, but they are less likely to be interested in information on your pioneer ancestors who settled in Oklahoma.)

Identify a Family Successor

Of course, even if you happen to donate copies of some of your materials to a historical library, if you are like most genealogists, you are hoping a member of your own family will volunteer to someday takeover your materials and continue on with your research where you leave off. If your goal truly is the preservation of your materials, however, this is not something you want to leave to chance after your death.

My suggestion would be to instead emulate what some of the best run corporations do. That may seem like an odd comment on the surface; but keep in mind that well-run companies are interested in preserving their corporate culture into infinity. And the leadership of such well-run corporations typically places the responsibility of succession on their own executives. That is to say, before someone can be promoted to the next level, managers of well-run corporations are expected to identify someone whom they feel would be an appropriate successor to take over their job.

In a similar manner, my suggestion to genealogists is that you proactively identify someone who would be both capable AND proud to take on your materials and work. As a word of caution, however, don’t assume that this individual will necessarily be one of your own children. It is natural to want to pass on old photographs and family artifacts to your own offspring; but doing so runs the risk that these artifacts won’t be safeguarded to your standards or, worse yet, that they would be passed on to yet other heirs who don’t value them at all. My challenge to you would be to instead find someone who shares your passion with history. Interestingly, this shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds. After all, similar personality traits typically do appear in families across multiple generations. Most often, though, they seem to appear in a cross-step fashion to nieces, nephews, and children of cousins.

Pass Materials on Before Your Demise

Regardless of who you identify as an appropriate successor to your materials and work, however, it is important to either pass these materials on before your ultimate demise or to make sure that this individual AND your immediate family members are in agreement as to what you wish to take place AFTER your death. And keep in mind that this isn’t just a matter of passing on the ubiquitous boxes that we genealogist all have. If you have electronic files, you need to plan for those as well. This will require passing on copies of those (hopefully organized) electronic files AND making sure that your successor also has access to your genealogy websites and online profiles and family trees. (i.e., Make sure that your successor knows of such online sites AND has the required passwords to take them over and maintain them!)

Disseminate Select Copies of Materials to all Family Members

If you are in agreement with me that passing on a legacy is more than simply passing on a list of who begat whom, then you will surely see the value in passing on multiple copies of your work. Today, there are so many options available for printing bound copies of photo books, genealogy books and other printed materials. Simply put, if it’s worth knowing, it’s worth printing and sharing. And if cost is a hindrance, don’t hesitate to seek donations, where appropriate, from other family members.

Don’t Overlook Your Own Story

Lastly, I encourage you to not overlook your own life story. If you are like me, you have struggled for years to put together some kind of understanding of who your ancestors were, how they lived, and what they believed. Would this task not have been easier if our ancestors had left us more information in their own words? Don’t leave your descendants in the dark about your own life. Write it down; and pass it on!

Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “How to Protect and Preserve Your Genealogy after Your OWN Death”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 28, 2013, ( accessed [access date]).