How to preserve photographs worth keeping in three simple steps

Today’s post is written by Sally Jacobs, the Practical Archivist. She has worked on archival collections at the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division, the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives and American Girl. Thank you, Sally, for agreeing to share your amazing, in-depth knowledge of archival procedures with us.

Before I start talking about preserving heirloom photographs so they last as long as possible, I want to state the obvious: Every photograph in your collection is not an heirloom. In fact, some (most?) of them are photo clutter. If you’re in the process of sorting through your pictures to determine which ones are keepers and which ones aren’t, I recommend checking out the YouTube video I made to help free people from the myth that every print is a treasure. Now, on with the discussion of what to do with the pictures you want to keep …

Ancestor photos are less likely be photo clutter in your home, in part because they are more scarce then modern snapshots. Photography used to be much more expensive than it is today, which means Great Aunt Estelle didn’t have many throwaway shots. Perhaps your collection only includes one portrait of Great Great Uncle Milton — as a soldier or in his wedding suit — but even if it’s just one, you probably want to treat it well. (If you don’t want to keep the old ones, consider passing them along to a genealogist or DeadFred.com.) In addition to these older photographs, you may also have a handful of newer portraits you want to preserve, and this is the best way to keep all of them safe:

Three Simple Things You Can Do to Extend the Life of Your Heirloom Photographs

1. Handle your photos carefully and safely.

Ever wonder why archivists wear white gloves? I use mine so often I wash them and store them in my underwear drawer. Human hands contain oils and salts that can damage photographs, and cotton gloves are an easy barrier to protect photographs. If you’ve seen as many 19th century photos as I have, you’d never forget that a fingerprint that’s invisible today will eventually become an impossible-to-ignore brown stain in the future. White cotton gloves are a simple and inexpensive solution. You can buy them online from suppliers like Uline.com.

If you truly can’t stand to wear gloves while you work on your photographs, I have an alternate suggestion. Wash your hands with soap before you start working, and be sure to wash them again after you take any break. Also, don’t put on hand lotion until you’re finished working with your photos for the day. Other than that, be careful where you place your fingers and try to hold prints by the edges only.

2. Store them in the right spot.

I’ll skip the long boring lecture about temperature and relative humidity and cut to the chase. Like Goldilocks, you want a spot that’s not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, and not too dry. High temperatures speed up the chemical processes that cause damage. Here’s a sobering thought: The rate of decay doubles with each increase of 18ºF. Doubles! High humidity like you find in basements and attics encourages mold and mildew, which can permanently stain and destroy photographs. Fluctuating humidity can cause the photos to crack because the paper backing and the emulsion absorb moisture at different rates. Basements and attics are also at high risk for flooding, and we all know flooding is bad news for any kind of treasure.

So, what’s the right spot? An interior closet in a house that’s cooled in summer and heated in winter is a safe bet. Guest bedrooms and linen closets under stairs work for many of my clients. Under the bed can be a great location, as long as you aren’t putting your photo treasures next to a heating vent.

3. Choose high quality boxes for a longer life

Controlling temperature and humidity levels to a specific zone can be difficult and expensive to accomplish. Fortunately, you can offset what’s going on in a room by putting your photo treasures in archival boxes. This creates a micro-environment that offers protection from UV light damage, dust, and discourages pests. You can even use silica gel to remove excess moisture from the “micro-environment” of your box. Boxing up anything that is loose also protects your photos from folding, crimping, and collecting scratches that happen when a corner of one photo nicks off emulsion from a nearby print.

When I say better boxes, do I mean archival boxes? Well, yes and no…

Yes, in the sense that you want to use the kind of boxes used by professional archivists. But, also no, because the term archival is unregulated and therefore meaningless. Finding a product sold as archival tells you very little about whether it’s a safe environment for your photo treasures. You probably know already that acids will damage paper and photographs. However, a true archival box is both acid free and lignin free. Lignins are a by-product of the paper-making process, and if they aren’t removed they will cause the paper to become acidic over time, even if it’s acid free today.

When it comes to storing photographic prints and film (as opposed to letters and printed material) there is another factor you should consider for your storage materials. The safest boxes for storing photographs have passed the Photographic Activity Test, or PAT. This test is an independent third party test that uses accelerated aging to discover whether the box or envelope will interact with the photographs in any way. You can read more about the PAT in “What Archival Really Means,” an article/rant on my personal blog.

Where can you find PAT-passed materials? Probably not at your neighborhood stationery store or scrapbooking supplier. You can find boxes, envelopes and folders that have passed the PAT in a dizzying array of sizes from archival suppliers such as Gaylord.com, HollingerMetalEdge.com and TalasOnline.com. I also sell an entire kit on my website, if you don’t want to track down individual pieces. (Note from Erin: It’s a nice kit, it’s actually why I asked Sally if she wanted to write a guest post for us. I saw it and thought, “I could really use that.”) If you do right by your photographs, they’ll be around for future generations to enjoy.

And, since this week is Thanksgiving in the U.S., I recommend bringing along copies of your old photos to family gatherings — you can ask relatives to help you identify any unknown people and also enjoy looking at the images.

18 Comments for “How to preserve photographs worth keeping in three simple steps”

  1. posted by Anne on

    Scan them (as high quality as you can) and then get rid. You can then share your photos easily and keep them forever without worrying about physical deterioration. My photo program even did facial recognition on the scanned ancestor photos and thought that some of them were their descendants!

  2. posted by Curly Girl on

    Do you have any tips for old photos in photo books, and how to detach them for scanning? While very aware it will not be the quality of the original, we want to have a way to keep the image for future generations in case of the original meeting its demise.

  3. posted by OogieM on

    NEVER get rid of good high quality photos or negatives!

    The archivist in me says that they are your originals and while computer scans are good, are you really going to spend the time to upgrade the file types and storage media with each new generation? Will you provide proper multiple backups in alternative locations? How good really are your scans?

    I’ve been doing a scanning project to archival standards of glass plate negatives from the early 1900s for our museum. Even the best scan I can get (over 100 MB per photo) is poor compared to the amount of information in the originals. Scans should be in addition to not in place of original prints and negatives.

  4. posted by Carol on

    I can understand scanning as a back-up but the thought of scanning and then getting rid of them about gives me a heart attack. No scan could ever replace the 100 year old photos of my great-great-grandparents.

    Thank you for the tips on how to care for this treasures.

  5. posted by Julia on

    You only mention storing photos in boxes, what about albums?

    My grandmother has pictures stacked up in various places all over her house. And she’s 85. I’d like to help her get them organized to ensure they’ll be cared for when she’s gone. I think future owners will take better care of albums that they can pull off a shelf and share than boxes that they will stick in a closet and forget about.

  6. posted by Cindy May on

    How funny that this topic should come up today when I’ve just agreed to scan a bunch (not sure how many, but might be quite a few) of negatives for a work colleague. Fortunately he’s not too worried about me fixing the minor imperfections and color issues, etc. so that will certainly make the job go a lot faster.

    I figure this will be my winter project and I might be able to get through some of my backlog of books while waiting for each scan to complete, so it will be nice to kill two birds with one stone.

    I will make sure to pick up some of those inspection gloves and a can of air to blow dust off the negatives. I plan to save the scans to a CD and leave it up to him to make prints or do any further editing.

    Thanks for your timeliness on this topic.

  7. posted by Layla on

    I’ve always been a little jealous of people a long time ago who only had a few special photos of themselves. I just have so many, and back when I had the time I didn’t have any notion of how to prioritize them. Now I think I’m going to keep a few in paper form – maybe one photo album for my entire life – and scan the rest and get rid of them/give them to my packratty parents.

    In fact I might do the tedious sorting process when I go home for Christmas.

    Thanks for this post!

  8. Avatar of

    posted by irishpiratequeen on

    Interested in cheap alternatives??

    I love photography! I always have and frankly I am not about to part with most of the shots as they take up little space. But that is me.

    Do not toss the photos that you wish had turned out better! Photography today will blow your mind.

    A friend posted a photo from the thirties or forties when he was a lil boy. He was being splashed, probably from the traffic.

    I love kids’ photos so I downloaded, put it in a photo software program (I probably have about eight). I clicked “Clean it up!” The photo was restored and took on a practically entirely different perspective. All the details surfaced! An even more adorable photo!

    It boggles my mind to think of what these programs will be able to do in 10 years time.

    I am “the” baggie” queen. Many photos I have put into baggies. I do keep negatives too. Some were not.

    The photos that were baggied still look gorgeous. The other ones, even in lovely albums and photo boxes- tend to be faded. I do not buy cheap stuff usually as I feel you get what you pay for.

    But what an elegant solution- baggies! ;o)

  9. posted by Mike on

    Great article. I’m of the mind that you scan everything, keep originals of the most important stuff, and understand that no force on Earth will stop them all from crumbling to dust at some point… but hopefully by then it will all be preserved in the Cloud, Star Trek TNG style. :)

  10. posted by Laura on

    I think the best suggestion was to bring photos to family gatherings. During 2010 I met a woman at Ancestry.com and we share great-great-great-grandparents. Last Christmas, she got a copy of a picture of her great-great-grandfather and sent it to me. He was the brother of my great-great-grandfather, of whom we have no pictures … this was the next best thing!

    Also, get all the stories you can from your elderly relatives, including notations of who’s who. Future generations with thank you!

  11. posted by Linda on

    I’ve become a fan of Mixbook/Shutterfly/online scrapbook and photo book services. Great way to have everything in one place.

  12. posted by Sally J. on

    Hiya, Sally J. here and I’m gonna answer your fantastic questions one at a time instead of cramming everything in one big long comment. I’ve also subscribed to the comments via RSS which means I should be able to catch future questions, too. Ready? Let’s go!

  13. posted by Sally J. on

    @Mike made a super important point in his comment, and I’m going to start with that because I didn’t address it in my brief post.

    “…no force on Earth will stop them all from crumbling to dust at some point.”

    This is absolutely true. An inescapable truth. Preservation isn’t about making anything last forever. There is no forever. It’s about extending the usable life of certain objects by reducing risks such as cycling temperature and humidity levels, high heat, UV light, acidic boxes, accidents and disasters.

  14. posted by Sally J. on

    @OogieM and @Carol both argue that scans cannot replace originals but are great for access when created in addition to the originals. @OogieM also reminds us that digital preservation requires work, too.

    Lately I’ve started using the made-up word “MOVAGE” to talk about digital preservation.

    My point is that what we think of as “STORAGE” — tucking photos away in a box and forgetting about them, for example — isn’t feasible with electronic data.

    File formats will change. Computer operating systems will change. Computer hardware will change. The only way to ensure that you will be able to access and use your digital photographs is to migrate them to current software versions and file formats on a regular basis.

    Over and over and over and over and over.

    A photographic print is not dependent on any machine. You don’t need electricity, software or hardware to see the image. Which is about as simple as you can get, really.

    If you’d like to learn more about scanning photos and digital preservation, I give away a free ebook to all my newsletter subscribers called “8 Blunders People Make When They Scan Photos and How To Avoid Them” Sign up is easy-peasy on my website. Just click on my name in this comment.

  15. posted by Sally J. on

    @Mike made a great point about how photo albums tend to be used more and valued more than loose photos. Albums are the perfect place for your absolute best “keeper” photos, but finding a good preservation album can be tricky.

    SIMPLE RULE OF THUMB FOR CHOOSING A PHOTO ALBUM: If it smells like a shower curtain, never ever put your precious photographs in it.

    Plastic sleeves and baggies can be made from plastics that will change over time and interact with your photos. If you’ve ever seen how the first page of a 3-ring binder can become plastered to the inside front cover, you know what I’m talking about.

    And don’t even get me started on those horrid sticky magnetic albums. Let’s just say I call them The Chemical Sandwich of Doom.

    Albums are a great idea, but please don’t place your most treasured photographs into a container that will speed up their decay.

    HERE IS WHAT AN ARCHIVIST LOOKS FOR IN A PHOTO ALBUM:

    - Acid and lignin free paper pages that are thick and strong enough to hold the weight of photo prints.

    - Optional – Plastic sleeves that are inert and non-reactive and have also passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). These form a protective outer layer that protects photos from fingerprints and disasters like spills. When they are sitting on a shelf, they do not make the photos last longer, which is why they are optional.

    - Binding on the album itself that it sturdy enough to be opened and closed repeatedly and also take the weight of all the photo prints it holds.

    - The *only* way to attach photos to paper pages that can be easily UN-done (this is the Golden Rule of preservation) is to use photo corners. The glue never touches your prints.

    - Choose an album that allows for captions and notes to be written on the album pages rather than the prints themselves. You can also type up captions and print them onto stickers or glue them in scrapbook-style. As long as the glue isn’t touching the photos it’s OK.

    - Optional – Outer slipcase to keep out all dust and light from the album itself. Excellent choice if you can afford it.

  16. posted by Sally J. on

    @CurlyGirl, you are right-on about making extra copies of your most important family photographs. The more copies you can spread around, the more likely that image will survive into the long term future.

    You asked about how to scan the photos that are trapped in albums. This can be tricky. Sometimes, it’s easy to remove the print. Sometimes it might as well be cemented in there.

    Two options:

    1. If the album itself is post bound like a scrapbook or tied with a string, you can easily disassemble the book and scan each page individually on a flat bed scanner.

    2. If there’s no way to take the pages out, I don’t recommend that you cut them out. Instead, create a temporary platform on either side of your scanner that will cradle the rest of the book while you scan each photograph. You can use anything as a prop, just make sure you cover anything pointy scratch or abrasive with a soft cloth. Unbleached cotton muslin is best but this is so temporary I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Just don’t scratch anything! :)

  17. posted by Sally J. on

    @Cindy May, sounds like an interesting scanning project. Negatives (especially oversize ones) take a looong time to scan, so you just might be able to get through a lot of reading at the same time. I hope you know about saving your scans as uncompressed TIFF files. This is particularly important if anyone might want to make edits in the future. I visited your blog to see if I could find an email address for you because I want to send you a copy of my 8 Blunders People Make When They Scan Photos e-booklet PDF. But I didn’t see one!

    If we miss each other again, you can get a copy by signing up for my Practical Archivist newsletter. Signup box is in the bottom right hand corner. Unsubscribing is easy, there’s no obligation to stay on the list, and I never ever share your email with anyone else. Ever.

  18. posted by Marcia Chauvin on

    Looking at the comments I have to remind people to make sure the people in the photos are identified. My grandmother is gone and I lost my mother this year and photos had been packed away for years. I wish I had facial recognition software because so many of the “old” photos don’t have peoples names attached. I am scanning the photos as I want to give copies labeled with peoples names to my daughter and grandchildren so they will have them, especially in case of fire. I want to label the ones I know because if I don’t they will have no clue who some of these people are.

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