Protecting Your Past: Preserving Photographs, Slides, and Albums

Photographs create a treasure that can link generations of family in a deeply personal way. Anyone who has seen old and often yellowing photographs of a generations-past relative mounted proudly on horse back or one of a relative going off to war knows how deeply moving and personal these photos can be. They are a piece of your own personal history.

Preserving photographs goes beyond careful placement in albums or scrap books, but definitely does start there. Enjoying this heirloom and preserving them is a balancing act that many people don’t realize until they have been given a box of old photos and postcards that are yellowed and brittle, mouse-eaten and unidentified. The thrill of being able to carefully finger through this piece of your family’s past is without compare, but can lead to expensive restoration projects.

Exposing photographs to light, heat, and humidity will eventually cause damage. Beyond these three sins, there are little things you can do to help protect your family’s precious photos. The better you preserve them, you realize three blessings: the treasure of your photographed memories, the dedication of preserving them, and a richer understanding of your family’s history.

Quick Heirloom Preservation Tips

Light, temperature, humidity, pollutants, pests, and handling all affect how quickly your photos, slides, and albums will decay. Here are the most basic things you can do to save your heirlooms, including things that go beyond the scope of our focus like quilts and journals.

  1. Display or store your treasures in a clean, stable environment: Ideally, those things you want to pass on or have been handed down to you should be stored or displayed in a constant temperature of 72? or below. A humidity of between 45 and 55 percent should be your goal. On a day-to-day basis, your treasures shouldn’t be subject to damp, heat, or dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. A general rule of thumb? If you feel comfortable in your surroundings, your heirlooms probably will, too.

  2. Think about display location: If you’re hanging Great Grandpa’s portrait over the fireplace, think about the damage you’re causing this heirloom; not only are the pollutants slowly eating away at it, but so is the extreme heat and dry air. Other places to avoid include any heat source (including radiators), outside walls, in the basement, or in the attic.

  3. Sun Block isn’t just for people: Avoid the sun and fluorescent lighting. These light sources will fade and discolor almost any heirloom, but are especially harmful to fabrics and anything on paper or canvas.

  4. Pesky Pests: Holes, wood or paper shavings and tiny droppings are all evidence of a pest problem destroying your precious heirlooms. If you spot this kind of trouble, remove the heirlooms from the spot and consult a conservator to see how you can minimize the damage done.

  5. Modern annoyances: Anything that you want to save, from your photographs to your quilts and journals, have “allergies” to many modern products that will make them deteriorate much more quickly. Avoid abrasive cleaners, dry-cleaner’s bags, glues, adhesive tape and adhesive backing, labels, pins or paper clips, acidic wood, acidic cardboard or paper, and pens and markers. When you have to write on the back of a photograph, find non-acidic markers in the scrap-booking section of your craft store. These will not destroy your treasure.

Preserving Photographs and Slides

All objects deteriorate over time, but photographs and slides can be especially damaged because we want to look at them, display them, and generally enjoy them over and over. Here are tips specifically for preserving your photos and slides for future generations to enjoy.

Display – Improve the odds of protecting your important photos by displaying duplicates. Store your originals separately, and always make copies of photos that become damaged right away, before that damage can become severe.

Photographic prints can be protected best when displayed by choosing a glass or acrylic cover that filters ultraviolet light. Many craft and photographic stores carry these kinds of frames, many of which use plexiglass for the cover. This helps you avoid unintentional damage from displaying your photographs where they can be enjoyed.

Beyond the glass or acrylic cover, be careful to choose wisely with the other ingredients making up a framed photograph. Ragboard mats should be unbuffered for color photos, and buffered for black and white. Ask around at a photographic supply about materials that pass the photographic activity test (PAT) to find the right materials for your photos.

When you choose to display your prints and slides in albums, use acid-free albums that aren’t self-adhesive or magnetic. The best albums use either plastic sleeves and have a small area for you to write on (so that you’re not damaging your photograph), or contain nothing but acid-free paper which you can add your images to with corner photo brackets, creating an album which greatly resembles the old-time ones.

Storage – If you don’t want to place your photos and slides in albums, and don’t plan on framing them for display, you need to store them carefully. Photographs and negatives should be stored in envelopes or folders made of stable plastic film or acid-free paper. If you’ve ever collected stamps, you probably have some left-over envelopes that would be perfect for storing small photos and slides. Place your filled envelopes in acid-free boxes, but don’t pack them too tightly. They need room to “breathe”.

Care – All photographs, negatives, and slides should be handled with extreme care. Avoid touching the image, or surface area, instead holding only by the edges in the same way you hold a CD. Wearing cotton gloves is a good idea, to prevent skin oils or dirt to transfer to your treasure.

It’s extremely important to label your photographs and slides, because you won’t always be around to explain who was who in a picture. The mystery left behind is often intriguing to future generations (believe me, I have several mysterious photographs from my Great Grandmother), but it does leave a sense of frustration, too. Try to label photos and slides on the backs of frames, or on album or storage pages. Only write on the back of your photos if you have no choice. Use either a soft, No. 2 pencil to write lightly, or obtain pens that are specifically made for photography with acid-free ink.

Preserving Scrapbooks and Albums

The variety of scrapbooks and photo albums that are passed on create an indelible emotion about their contents. From the well-worn leather covered photography album to the hinged wooden covers of an old family photo book, these scrapbooks and albums are something made to treasure. Here’s how.

Display and Storage – Small and medium-sized scrapbooks and albums should be shelved upright, just as you store any other book. If the album is large, bulges open, or contain loose items, display or store it lying flat to avoid bending, dust and damage.

Many times, the covers of old scrapbooks and albums will come loose, separating from the book itself. If this happens, tie the book closed with a length of linen or cotton tape. Do not use rubber bands, or anything with adhesive.

If the book contains a large number of loose items, or it is damaged in a way that doesn’t lend to ties, store it in an acid-free box or wrap it securely (but not too tightly) in acid-free paper.

Care – We like mementos, and our albums and scrapbooks can become filled with things like wedding programs, newspaper clippings, and greeting cards. The only problem with this is that none of these things are printed on acid-free paper.

Some people recommend making copies on acid-free paper of the items you want to include in an album, and storing the originals separately. Personally, I think this takes the intimate beauty of the original item away. Instead, you can separate these items from the other pages with sheets of acid-free paper or polyester film. This will keep the acids from harming items on nearby pages, and keep their original beauty and importance intact.

Use only plastic or acid-free paper corners to reattach loose items. Any other repairs should be done by a professional. A small problem can seem easy to fix, but it is the best of intentions that can destroy a beautiful album.

Making a New Family Album – Keep in mind all of the things that you’ve done to protect your older albums, and start out right. Select safe archival-quality materials like acid-free binders and pages, plastic or acid-free paper corners and stable plastics for sleeves, pocket pages, and stamp mounts. Separate the pages of photographs with a single sheet of acid-free paper or polyester film to avoid damage from the beginning.

Finally, never ever cut an original photograph. Use only copies or duplicates to cut photos into decorative shapes; this preserves their value.

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