Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with Permanent.org. This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks, and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent, and I'm your podcast host.
Our theme this episode is inheritance. This is an especially important and timely topic since we just launched our legacy planning feature here at Permanent. This feature allows our members to designate a legacy contact for their account and archive stewards for each individual archive that they own. This feature is critical to our mission and means that each member's legacy is safeguarded for the future.
In this episode, we delve into how to downsize, manage, and preserve with Courtney Plaster. With a 20-year background in client supporting roles, Courtney Plaster brings a unique combination of academic training in art and theater production to the technology space. As a certified professional photo organizer and as an advisory board member for The Photo Managers, Courtney is a project manager at heart with a comprehensive approach to problem-solving.
Drawing from her travels abroad, vast professional network, and supplemental training, she has developed a detailed and intimate hands-on approach to each project, lending a personal touch, not found anywhere else in the industry. Courtney has a Bachelor's of Art in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She lives in Carrboro, North Carolina with her son and two cats.
All right. Welcome, Courtney. Thank you so much for being here.
Courtney Plaster: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I've been looking forward to this conversation all month. And I just wanna start with a simple question of how are you today?
Courtney Plaster: I am great. It is hot, hot, hot here in North Carolina, I'm in Chapel Hill, just right in the middle of the state, but doing good. I'm happy to be here. And like I was saying, I've been working on this talk for Save Your Photos Month coming up in September, and so I have a lot of fun things to talk about today.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I'm super excited about the overlap between Save Your Photos Month and this conversation. So, without further ado, we can jump right in.
Courtney Plaster: Sure.
Amanda Meeks: All right. Could you tell me how you got into this work, specifically the work of decluttering the print and digital parts of life?
Courtney Plaster: Sure. So I was working on a career change. I was actually a hairstylist for 20 years, and I loved doing that, I love working with people, it's a little bit of a like problem-solving scenario a lot of times, but didn't wanna do that full-time anymore. So I did some work in the tech space and tried to figure that out.
And nothing really seemed like a good fit, but along the way, I started amassing this very broad base of technical knowledge and different softwares and things. I guess when the pandemic hit, everybody had to get really creative, but there was just this kind of perfect storm of working with people that I like so much and the problem-solving and then all of this kind of technology component that came together.
And I started working with mostly seniors, kind of helping them declutter their files and things. And then the photos were kind of a supplement and that became more popular over time.
And so now it just feels really authentic. I still get to work with people and sort of help them like get to the root of the problem and help them find solutions. And that can look like a lot of different things, but a lot of times it's downsizing digital collections of files or photos.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I love that and I love that this was kind of spurred from the need to get creative and pivot. I'm sure we've all heard that word so many times since 2020. So what are the benefits of downsizing print or digital collections and preserving what matters most, in your opinion?
And then a second part of that question is if you have any specific examples of the impact you've seen this have on those you've worked with? I'd love to hear any stories you can share there.
Courtney Plaster: Sure. I think there are so many benefits of downsizing your digital collections or print collections. I think the mental health benefits, helping with your mental load is huge in print and in digital stuff. And then also just the availability of being able to share all of those things with friends and family is really powerful.
I think a lot of people don't realize it until they see it, until they can open a browser window and then suddenly click through all of these things that have been collected. It's really amazing.
I pulled a couple of statistics offline just to share, but in 2022, it's estimated that 1.5 trillion photos were taken, and projected that 9 trillion photos are being stored in the cloud somewhere. So I think that that really is a staggering number and it's just getting bigger and bigger every year.
So as far as what we have to deal with every day and things that we have to remember, it's certainly a benefit to not have to think about all of those trillions of photos that we're taking and where to put them. It's less talked about in the US, but my European cohort talks a lot about the environmental impacts of cloud storage and they're really trying to make an effort to reduce the amount of stuff that we have in the cloud here. It's intangible, you can just stick it up in the cloud and then it kind of goes away, but it doesn't disappear. Someone has to deal with it.
Then as far as the sharing goes, I do have a couple of fun stories. One, I had this older client, and he's a software engineer, so I wouldn't call him a hoarder per se, but he really kept every single thing that he ever had.
He was an amateur photographer and he got his first camera in middle school and just continued taking photos into I think he might be in his seventies. But I went to his house, he had 20 slide carousels that we digitized for them, and in the first carousel is a silent film that he made with the first camera he received for Christmas in middle school.
And it's like a stop motion old Western, so there's like a title card and then it's like him and his brother like robbing a bank or something. And he totally forgot that he had made that film. And so when everything was digitized, he was able to play it back and like remember the film that he made, which was really special I think.
And then, I have another client who, her mom just passed away, but she has a really long family history going back into Eastern Europe. And so she brought me photos from the mid-1800s and it was their kind of family lineage up until when she died in the early 2000s. And we digitized that whole kind of family history for her and she was able to share that with all of her siblings and then we were able to print them.
So I think, you know, the mental load for sure, but I think being able to downsize and preserve the things that matter can then be shared with people, and they forget what they have a lot of times.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I can imagine. It's hard to keep a mental catalog of everything you've ever taken a photo of or documented or every memory. They kind of get lost over time.
Courtney Plaster: Totally, especially now because everything is digital. No one's intentional about the photos they're taking, because you can really take unlimited numbers of photos. So like, god knows what's in my camera roll, if I go back too far.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah.
Courtney Plaster: A bunch of screenshots and pictures of shoes and nothing that anyone cares about even six months from now.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I love those stories and especially with the silent film, I feel like that's a really powerful moment.
Courtney Plaster: It really is.
Amanda Meeks: In terms of inheriting the print or digital collections of others, what are some of the ways one can sensitively manage what often ends up being an overwhelming and daunting task, especially if letting go of some of those materials is necessary.
Courtney Plaster: Sure. I think that this is a really important thing to understand because I think a lot of times the people that are initiating a downsize are not necessarily the keepers of these photos. Sometimes they are, but I actually just had a client recently who her parents are moving to Hawaii and they were prolific photo takers and album makers, and she sort of took it upon herself to help them, but it was kind of a mess because they weren't ready.
And so I think the first thing to do is to be patient and to just understand that people's memories are tied to these photos. Emotions can run high, good and bad, but I think it can be hard just to get people to look through them before they even start to get rid of stuff. So I think being patient is the first thing you can do and sort of understand where they're coming from and sort of approaching it like a solution or, you know, nothing final. It's just sort of a transitional state that these photos are in, kind of on their way to being preserved maybe can help.
We also like to talk about the ABCs of photo organizing. People can think about the album or things that they wanna kind of see all the time. And then a box, which is things you don't wanna necessarily get rid of, but you don't wanna throw away either sort of like purgatory. And then C is a can, or trash can.
So when people are going through things or talking to their relatives about going through things, they can give them this format, which can be a little helpful. I think it's hard when people have to make like a yes or no decision, then they get kind of freaked out and they don't make a decision at all.
But if there can be like a middle, like maybe, but I'm not sure, that can keep the momentum going so that it doesn't stall. But if it is triggering or if it is a difficult scenario, then you can start sorting or downsizing the images that are less triggering or less emotionally impactful.
And I think that can help make some progress. And you sort of save the really hard stuff till later or the end, or whenever they're ready.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, that sounds like a really great strategy and I really do appreciate the ABC model for having that kind of in between space where you don't have to make a decision right away.
Courtney Plaster: Yeah, it can be hard. There's some digital photo organizing apps out there. So the one is called GoodOnes. I learned about them at the conference this year for The Photo Managers. And there's another one called Gemini 2.
But the difference between those two is, Gemini 2, you have to keep or trash, and then good ones gives you, they call it best rest or trash. And that gives you that third kind of B category where you can actually make some progress going through stuff because you don't have to be like, " I don't wanna keep it, I don't wanna keep it."
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, it's really helpful to take stock of what you are going to keep for sure before you make decisions about the items in the B category, it seems.
Courtney Plaster: Yeah.
Amanda Meeks: Great. What are some of the things someone should look out for when they've inherited collections of photos from relatives?
Courtney Plaster: Okay, so this is what I'm talking about at Save Your Photos Month. I think the main thing people should look out for is like a communication breakdown or there are people that don't wanna get on board.
I've encountered one relative who is so communicative and then someone else won't respond to any sort of email whatsoever, and then some people don't care. I feel like people phase in and out of caring about their photos or family photos. They might not care and therefore they think no one else cares and so they don't think it's important. So I think that's a big one to look out for.
Everybody always has a different opinion on what should be done with the photos. So there's gonna be some people that wanna keep everything and digitize everything. Some people don't wanna keep anything that kind of ties into budget concerns where the people that wanna keep everything and digitize everything, it can get really expensive. And then who's gonna pay for that?
Then also, a lot of my clients are inheriting these collections later in life where their parents, they've either passed or they're having memory care issues, and so they're people and places that aren't identified and my clients don't know who these people are, and that can be really tricky too.
So, I think those are the main ones to look out for. Sometimes it's smooth, but usually at least one of these that pops up.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, that makes sense. And each scenario is gonna be so different, right?
Courtney Plaster: Yeah. I have two big collections right now, and both of the parents, kind of original owners of the collections are in their nineties, and they're excited that it's getting saved, but they also can't help too much with kind of naming older locations or older relatives. And that's been tricky for the children of them.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. It's good to have those documented as early as possible, as the folks who can identify are dwindling or losing their cognition around it.
Courtney Plaster: Luckily, people a long time ago seemed to really put an importance on documenting things on the backs of photos as they happened. I really appreciate as a photo organizer, we don't do that anymore. And I mean, who's printing photos anyway?
I saw one photo and it said, " Dad when he got home from work at 6:00 PM" and then had a location, and it was them standing in front of their house and it was such a sweet little note that, you know, there's this gap where people stopped doing that.
Amanda Meeks: Let's switch from the scenario of when you inherit something to what you will leave behind. What are the steps one can take to ensure their photos, documents, and other ephemera are preserved and properly passed to the next of kin?
Courtney Plaster: Sure. So this might roll back into what we talked about before, because you may be doing this with somebody else, or you might be the lucky one who has taken on this project. The first thing to do is to not get overwhelmed and to sort of take things in bite-sized pieces.
The rule of thumb in the photo organizing industry is that you should prioritize digital photos because they're more susceptible to data loss. But I say if you have a bunch of old photos sitting in a North Carolina summer garage, they could be equally at risk for loss.
Do what feels comfortable for you in an amount that feels comfortable for you.
The first thing you can do is start by sorting things. You can get big Rubbermaid bins as temporary sorting things and just work by decade or work by type. You know, sometimes you'll have boxes of albums and then you'll have boxes of loose photos. Sometimes they're even in the developer sleeve.
Then, I like to use index cards too when I'm organizing things. And so you can sort of stick, you know, 1980s. So just kind of work big picture and then kind of drill down and then again, use the ABC strategy.
The throwaway ones are the easiest ones to choose first, I think because they're clearly nothing that you wanna keep. Don't get too bogged down and is it an A or a B? You just, you're gonna keep it, it's going in the eighties and this is that section. And then when you're done with that, you can move them to archival storage. I like to work with a company called Archival Methods.
They have really beautiful boxes and binders and sleeves and everything. And so that way the photos can be stored inside in a climate-controlled environment. But even if you wanna have 'em out on a shelf, they look really attractive. Then from there, after, if you do decide to digitize anything, then you can push them up to a cloud backup and share a site like Permanent.org. I also like to recommend machine backups, like Backblaze, that's a cloud backup for your whole computer just in the event of an emergency or fire / flood.
Then I also like to tell people, to consider their future self or consider someone they don't know in the future, going back and looking through these things because going back to the people that don't care and they think no one else cares, you know my son is gonna wanna look at all of these really silly pictures of me from elementary school where right now I feel like they're ridiculous and I shouldn't keep them, but he loves going through all that stuff. So, don't discount things just because you don't think that they're meaningful.
And, when you're naming things digitally, all same. You know, there's a naming convention that we like to use that it'll chronologically sort by year, but then add some themes, add some names, and so they're searchable and that someone down the road might come upon this pile of digital files and they could sort of figure out what's going on.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. On Permanent, we have pretty robust metadata fields and custom metadata that people can use to really make their collection searchable and useful for folks who are trying to find something in it in the future or even for themselves. I think the idea that someone you don't know or doesn't exist yet, might going through your files someday, I think is really important to keep in mind when you're creating these collections and thinking about your digital legacy.
And the other thing that I wanted to mention is that we just launched our legacy planning feature, which allows you to name an account legacy contact, and it also allows you to create an archive steward for each archive so that when you pass, those materials are transferred to a new owner.
Courtney Plaster: That's great. That's super important.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. That's pretty core to our mission is making sure that those collections and the legacies of people survive and are passed down in a way that supports that individual's wishes.
So my last question is, how would you advise someone on providing the context of their digital files, so they aren't just files, but they're also stories that live on well into the future?
Courtney Plaster: Great question. Well we would talk about physically writing things down and getting up with family members, but the legacy planning feature you have, is there a sharing capability with that?
Amanda Meeks: Yeah.
Courtney Plaster: Yeah.
Great. So start with writing things down when you're in the sorting process with index cards, you know, write as much information down on the cards as you can, get other relatives to do it.
There's some cloud-sharing sites or you know, if you already have them in Permanent, you can share this like you just said, and people can collaborate and contribute into these files. But you can start with a cloud document if people are spread all over the place, you know, get all of your older relatives involved and try to kind of write down as much as they remember.
Just a tip is to not use a ballpoint pen if you're gonna be writing on the back of photos, because it'll make an indentation and it'll show through on the front of the photo. So when you're scanning them, you can see the mark. They make some nice archival pencils. I use a brand called STABILO, but a number two pencil would be fine too.
I was gonna mention genealogy programs. A lot of people like to do things like Ancestry.com, that could tie in nicely with a Permanent.org archive and family members can kind of either transfer information there or in the field, in the Permanent archive, you can capture some of that kind of family history there to share.
Those are probably the big ones. The metadata fields in Permanent would probably be easier for people to use than going into their own software. You can always hire a Photo Manager to help if you need help with something like that. But, the naming convention I mentioned earlier, it's a four-digit year and two-digit month, two-digit day, and then a theme or a name of a person. That's a great one to follow. So even if you don't know how to mess with metadata just yet, if you're doing digital file work, that's a great way to do that and they'll chronologically sort and at least they'll be searchable that way.
So it's somebody's wedding, you can have the wedding and the file name.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I love that. Well, thank you so much for all of your expertise and all of your thoughts on preserving photos and other ephemera into the future. We are definitely participating in Save Your Photos Month and I'm looking forward to learning more from you at your presentation.
Courtney Plaster: Oh, that's great. Yeah, check it out. I can't remember the weeks, but for every week there's a different theme and so I'll be presenting in the first week about why your legacy matters and what you should do.
But I was really happy to speak with you today. I'm so glad I could be here and thank you for having me.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. All right. Thanks, Courtney.
<Courtney Plaster: Yeah.
Amanda Meeks: We hope you enjoyed this episode on Inheritance with Courtney Plaster. Whether you are the inheritor of the family archive or building one to pass to your own next of kin, we urge you to learn more or use Permanent's new legacy planning feature to ensure what matters most to you is digitally preserved.
The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations. Our web and mobile app, Permanent.org is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely, without recurring subscription fees. Anyone can create a free account and start archiving today.
Special thank you to our podcast editor, Emily Sienkiewicz . See you next time.
Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.