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A Genealogist In The Archives: Writing on Photographs: What to Use?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Writing on Photographs: What to Use?

One question about photographs that I am asked a lot as an archivist is:

"What do I use to write on my photographs when identifying them?"

That is a great question!

Family photographs are very precious to us all. Many of us don't have old photographs of our ancestors because they were lost, destroyed or belong to an unknown family member that we hope to discover one day.

Christian Barth Family, Melissa Barker Photograph Collection

Identifying the people, places and objects in photographs is very important and should be done with each and every photograph. But how that information is recorded on the actual photograph is something every genealogist should think about.

Using a soft lead pencil to write on the back of your photographs is the best and preferred method. Archives and archivists use soft lead pencils everyday to write on photographs and the genealogist should do the same.

Remember, when handling photographs it is important to wear gloves. Either white cotton gloves or non-latex powder free examination gloves are acceptable. The oil and dirt of our hands can damage photographs, that is why it is always recommended to wear gloves when handling photographs.

Gloves at Link

Soft lead pencils can be bought at any local office supply store and are fairly inexpensive. Be sure to purchase a pencil sharpener if you don't already have one. As the pencil is used and wears down, you will want to be able to sharpen it.

The most important thing to remember is to identify your photographs if you know who is in the photo. Don't put it off or say to yourself "I will get to that one day". Do it NOW! So many of us have photographs in our collections that have not been identified and now nobody knows who the people are in the photo.

Identifying your photographs today will make your descendants happy in the future!



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  1. The backs of some photos, cannot be written on in pencil due to the slick/glossy texture. What is best to use for those?

    1. Lee, that is a great question! The next best thing for those photos that pencil will not work on is an "Identi-Pen" that is what we use in the archives. Here is a link to the pen on

  2. Usually I encase each photo in an archival sleeve and slap on an adhesive label to the outside of the sleeve, with captions. But if I want to write on the back of a photo, what number is soft enough for a soft-lead pencil? Thanks!

    1. Marian, the soft pencils are #2. You are doing a great job by putting your photos in archival sleeves!

    2. Thanks, Melissa, for the tip on #2s. Nearly all my photos are in sleeves, but for the few that haven't yet been "sleeved," I think I'll write on the back--one of my resolutions is to complete captioning!