Things You Should Know About Preserving Your Family Photos

I’m talking actual physical photos here folks, not that new-fangled digital stuff. [Seriously though, if you aren’t taking care of your digital photographs you are putting your memories in danger. Read up on some tips here. Maybe I’ll do a post on that later.]

1. It is all about storage. Storage, Storage, Storage.
In my opinion, the most important thing you can do to preserve your photographs for future generations is to store them in a place that is dry with a cool, stable temperature. No attic. No basement. No garage. Avoid direct sunlight. Bring those babies into your main house. Sure, there are lots more specific storage techniques (and I’ll talk about those in a minute), but you can make a huge difference just by doing this one simple thing. Don’t put this off – do it now!

Okay, let’s move on to something a little more advanced than that. I’m going to cheat here and take my information directly from the National Archives. (Pro tip #1: Trust a qualified source!)

“Look for paper enclosures that are made from a high quality, non-acidic, lignin-free paper (buffered or unbuffered are OK) made from cotton or highly purified wood pulps. . . . Look for plastic enclosures made from uncoated pure polyethylene, polypropylene or polyester (also called Mylar D or Mellinex 516). These are considered stable and non-damaging to photographs. Polyester is crystal clear and is more rigid than polyethylene and polypropylene. None of these recommended plastics have any odor to them, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic does have a strong odor (the new car smell). Avoid the use of PVC plastics–they generate acids which can fade the photograph in time. . . .

Photographs can also be stored in plastic pocket pages and standard size plastic sleeves, grouped in folders for organization, then stacked in a box. Photographs 8 x10 inches or smaller can be stored vertically on their long edges in standard size boxes which are available for many photographic formats, including modern and nineteenth-century photographs. Photos larger than 8 x 10 inches, or those with damaged edges (brittle, torn) should be stored flat in small stacks inside standard size boxes. Groups of similar sized photos which are all the same type, such as modern 4 x 6 inch color snapshots, or older 2-1/4 inch black-and white snapshots, can be stored vertically or horizontally together without extra housings–photos which are the same type are usually safe to store in contact with each other.

Boxes should be neither over stuffed or under filled. Over stuffing causes damage when photos are pulled out or filed away; under filling causes the photos to slump and curl.”

2. Watch those fingerprints.
I’m not saying you have to go out and buy white cotton gloves (although feel free if you want to be fancy!), but fingerprints will cause a lot of damage to your images. Always have clean hands when you will be handling your photos and always hold them by the edges. You won’t even see the oil residue you are leaving behind, but in a few years that tell-tale fingerprint will pop up. The only thing you can do at that point is to scan it and try to remove it digitally. Speaking of scanning. . .

3. Consider scanning.
Take the time to scan your photographs and create high-quality digital images. From there, you have the digital versions to view anytime you want, you could print off hard copies for family members to enjoy instead of the originals, or you could even create a fun photo book gift from one of the many websites out there. If you do scan, make sure you are taking the proper steps for long-term preservation of those files (see the link above to get started).

I feel like this should be common sense, but know from experience it is not – do not discard the originals after you scan them. Seriously people.

4. No rubber bands, paperclips, staples, or writing.
Rubber bands turn into this substance that is somehow hard and still sticky when they deteriorate. Paperclips and staples leave scrapes, indentions, or holes behind and can rust then they deteriorate. Writing? Yeah, that one might come as a surprise. When you write on the back of a photograph, it can very easily push through to the other sides. Even if you are delicate, ink contains acid that could cause problems in the future. If you want to label your photos, you can purchase a special acid-free pen or – at the very least – use a pencil.

5. Choose albums wisely.
If you like to store your photographs in easily accessible albums, pay careful attention to what you are buying. Photo and scrapbooks are pretty popular right now and it should be easy to find an album that uses “archival-quality” materials. Avoid those things with the sticky pages. No glue. No tape.

 

*My July “Things You Should Know” series is officially over. Due to its popularity, I think I will make it a monthly feature. Look for posts towards the end of each month.

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5 comments

  1. Hi, It’s me again! Michael Card of MagazineArt.org and I were just discussing this very thing today and were swapping stories of people who had no regard for their ancestral photos. It’s not a matter of not taking care of photos properly, it’s a matter of not caring about their ancestral heritage at all and selling them or chucking them altogether. I’ve been looking for a photo of my 3rd great-grandparents for several years now and still don’t have one, so it makes me really sad when I hear stories of people that don’t care about their precious family treasures. sigh!

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