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Friday, March 21, 2008

Solving the Mystery of Who's Who in Old Photos

Have you ever opened an old photo album or box of old pictures from your grandparent's generation and wondered who the people in the pictures were? Unfortunately, our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. were as careless as we are about labeling the pictures we take. After all, I know who the people are in the photo. So, why bother?

Fortunately, or unfortunately, pictures outlast us, but our memories don't, so we end up leaving behind a trove of photos full of, by now, nameless faces.

However, there are ways to identify people in photos even if the photo is 50 - 100 years old and one way is by showing the picture to people in the family who are older than us and are closer to the people in the photos. One technique for doing this is to sit down with a grandparent or great aunt or great uncle and show them the pictures, asking questions as you go along. With luck you will find that they will often either recognize people in the photographs or recognize or remember something about the situation (wedding, anniversary, birthday, holiday, etc.) when the picture was taken which will give you evidence to use when talking to others or searching other sources like old letters, diaries, etc. With even more luck, the picture will spark memories and you may get some good stories as well as identifying people in the pictures. My sister, in an article entitled Time the Identity Thief that she wrote, suggests taping (with permission) these interviews so that you can record the information and stories even if they talk faster than you can write. While the tapes may be looked upon simply as a tool for gathering the information, if stories are involved, the tapes themselves could become as valuable a family treasure as the pictures.

As children, by brother and I got my Uncle Willard started on his World War I stories and taped them on my father's old reel to reel tape recorder so that we could remember them. The tape got put away and twenty some years later my Father transferred the stories to a cassette and sent it to me. My uncle had since died, so I put it away and saved it. A few years ago, with the tape getting older, I transcribed it to save the stories and then, last year I got a program for my PC to handle recording and used the program to digitize the stories on the tape. I then burned some CDs and shared them with my cousins and with my mother's cousin (my Uncle Willard's son) all of whom appreciated the memories of Uncle Willard and his stories.

Recording and saving sound on a computer is easy and inexpensive. While there are numerous options, with prices to match, I have found the following inexpensive hardware and software sufficient to do what I want. Of course there are other, usually more expensive, options as well and many of these offer higher quality and more options for manipulating the content with the computer.

For software I use a product called Audacity which is an open source product that is offered for free under a GNU General Public License (GPL). It has been created by a group of volunteer programmers who maintain and update it with new releases. It can be downloaded from on the web. While they don't charge for the product, the Audacity team does accept donations of cash as well as time from developers and programmers who would like to help with the project. They also sell T-shirts and other clothing with the Audacity name and logo along with some recording equipment at their I personally have found this to be an easy to use tool that meets my, admittedly limited, digital sound recording and editing needs.

For hardware I purchased a simple microphone from a computer store which I just plugged in to PC. The cost of the microphone was less than $20. Lacking a cassette tape player, I purchased a cheap $15 cassette player from Wal-Mart and plugged speakers rather than headphones (the player was designed to be worn on a belt and played through headphones) into the outlet on the unit. Placing the microphone near, but not too close, to the speakers connected to the cassette player I started the Audacity program on the computer, pushed the play button on the player and quietly left the room while the recording was made.

Add a scanner to scan the old pictures and a CD or DVD recorder to your PC (most come with one or both of these now days) and, with a little creativity you can create and distribute your own memory book with pictures and sound.

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