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 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

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, and 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.

Safely store guitars and other stringed instruments with a Guitar-Stor

We have a number of musical instruments in our house. Due to humidity concerns, we like to keep them stored in their cases year-round. What then, to do with the big, clunky cases?

Rather than hiding them under a bed, which would be inconvenient since we actually play the instruments regularly, we keep them rested on a Guitar-Stor rack where they are easily within reach. It keeps the cases from scratching the walls and it looks nice in our living room where we practice.

The other really nice thing about the unit is that you can rest guitars directly on it without their cases. This is convenient when you’re practicing, or when you have a number of friends over to pick. And, even if you leave a guitar on the Guitar-Stor rack for an extended period of time, you don’t have to worry about the foam padding marring the finish, as the manufacturer uses a custom-formulated EPDM/neoprene synthetic blend for the padding that touches the instrument (this is important because open cell and and/or organic materials such as those found in natural rubber and surgical tubing are susceptible to outgassing, which can damage guitar finishes)

The racks come in several styles and finishes. We opted for the basic MDF model in black, for a more contemporary look. In this configuration, the Guitar-Stor is priced at $475. The company also offers more elaborate models in both cherry and walnut finishes with hardwood construction.

The manufacturer’s website only shows guitars on the Guitar-Stor rack, but you can see from the photo taken in our house that we have no trouble storing cases for both mandolins and violins on the rack.

These Guitar-Stor racks are not an inexpensive solution, but they are very well-built. We think it’s a small price to pay if you have expensive guitars that you want to keep safely out of the way when not in use.

Don’t let maybe-one-day items become clutter in your home

Reusing objects is a tricky matter for people, like myself, who struggle with clutter. Our initial instinct is to save an item so we can reuse it (I’m being frugal! I’m helping the environment!). However, if the object is never repurposed, it becomes clutter. The most common examples of this are plastic tubs for food stuffs like cottage cheese, sour cream, and margarine. We save the tubs thinking we’ll reuse them to send leftovers home with dinner guests. And, there may be one or two times in our lives when a tub is used for such a situation, but mostly these tubs make a mess of a kitchen drawer or cabinet for years or even decades.

I’m thoroughly impressed by people who save items planning to reuse them, and then actually reuse the item creatively and within a reasonable amount of time. When done in this manner, reuse can be a wonderfully uncluttered, frugal, and environmentally friendly way to live.

The article “22 Ways to Reuse an Altoids Tin” on The Art of Manliness website is an inspiring look at all the ways an empty Altoids tin can cease being clutter. If you’ve been holding onto a tin thinking you’re going to reuse it one day, maybe a survival kit or pocket tackle box or morse code oscillator is in your future:

If Altoids tins aren’t filling up your drawers, maybe you are looking for a way to turn a cigar box into a guitar or wanting to find another purpose for those margarine tubs? Old coffee cans have numerous uses and so do used corks.

Don’t let maybe-one-day items clutter up your space. Either drop them in the recycling bin right now, or get started on a reuse project that will keep the item from being clutter in your home.

Ask Unclutterer: How can I disguise workout equipment?

Reader Cindi submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My question for the day is how do people incorporate the big exercise equipment into their homes? I am thinking of a treadmill. I have thought of getting some decorative screens and walling it off when not is use. It is currently in the family room, which has multiple personalities — home office, tv room, and gym. I’d love to know your thoughts and ideas, as well as other reader’s suggestions.

I must admit, I am truly stumped by what to do with exercise equipment in the absence of a dedicated workout room. Treadmills are so difficult to incorporate into a room that serves other purposes.

Screens scream, “THERE IS A TREADMILL BEHIND HERE!” In bedrooms, treadmills become dirty clothes hampers. And, in television rooms they’re always in the way.

If you didn’t already own a treadmill (and you had a lot of money), I’d suggest you check out the XFit. It’s a workout room in an armoire. A brilliant idea that I wish weren’t so expensive.

This is one of those times when I think it best to let our readers give you the advice. Someone has to have a solution. (Please, someone have a solution!) I have always been at a loss for what to suggest for disguising workout equipment. So readers, please give Cindi a hand and offer up your suggestions in the comments. I’ll also be reading to see what everyone has to say because I need the advice as much as Cindi.

Thank you, Cindi, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. And, sincerely, I hope someone has better advice for you than I do on this topic.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Workspace of the Week: Sewing serenity

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Heather Peterson’s mom’s sewing room:

My selection this week isn’t from our Flickr pool. I stumbled upon this truly amazing sewing room while looking for inspiration for our guest room. The picture I’ve attached to this post doesn’t look all that impressive, but the detail images in the full article describing the space are remarkable. There is sincerely a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Even if you aren’t someone who sews, you can find inspiration from this room for how to organize other hobbies and even a traditional workspace. I’m a fan of Heather Peterson’s mom’s custom sewing room, and I strongly recommend checking out her post about the space.

Image by Heather Peterson.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Searching for inspiration for a multipurpose guest room

Our new house has a guest room, which is something completely alien to us. Not really knowing what to do with the space, my husband and I bought a bed and nightstand, hung some artwork, and then closed the door to keep out the cat. (The image at right is the catalog staging of the bed and nightstand we have. Obviously, if our guest room already looked this amazing, I wouldn’t be writing this post.)

Since we moved in March, the room has only been used by guests a few times. The Karen Bussen-inspired entertainer in me loves this idea of having a relaxing room just for guests — make the room like a $400 a night resort hotel room where visitors can truly feel as if they are on a rejuvenating vacation. Conversely, the practical part of me thinks the room should have more utility than a place for visitors to sleep once every couple months.

I’ve been spending a lot of time researching ways to satisfy both of my desires for the space. I’m looking for ways to make it a fabulous guest room and a practical hobby room in one. The solution will have to include storage for the hobby supplies that can be completely closed up when guests are present and using it for their retreat. And, I want it to be extremely practical as a hobby room when guests aren’t visiting.

Here are some of the images I’ve been using as inspiration for what to do with this room:

Have you seen a beautiful guest room that serves more than one purpose? Share a link or describe a solution you’ve seen in the comments. How did someone create a space that effectively met both needs?

Living as close as possible to your ideal self

My ideal self and my real self aren’t exactly the same person. My ideal self is like this:

I’m driving a Jeep somewhere on the west coast, heading up a trail so I can go running or hiking or do a little rock climbing. My husband and son are with me, and all we see are blue skies. It’s a Tuesday morning and we are stress free and ready for fun.

My real self is more like this:

Well, except that isn’t actually me or my son. The point is that my real Tuesday morning is spent writing at a desk, trying to wrangle a toddler, while also attempting to chug a cup of coffee.

I believe it’s important to live as close to our ideal self as possible. I love my job, but I work because I need to. Working provides me with the means to live as close to my ideal as I can and to be responsible for the things I value.

Even though I’m not spending this Tuesday morning driving up a mountain with my family, I have plans to do exactly that on an upcoming vacation. Like I said, my ideal self is as close as possible to my real self.

Problems arise, however, when someone’s ideal self and real self are separated by a giant chasm. The ideal self is never experienced, and guilt, stress, and clutter accumulate because of this disconnect. Someone might see her ideal self as a golfer who plays the most beautiful courses in the world, and she may even have a set of golf clubs in the basement waiting for her to use. But, if she hasn’t picked up a club in a decade and hasn’t scheduled a tee time or saved any money or researched possible golf trips or done anything to make her vision a reality, there is too much distance between the ideal and the real. The golfing dream is just a dream, and it’s time to make it happen or let it go.

Clutter comes in many forms — physical, mental, emotional, etc. — and all of it is unproductive and distracting. Take a few moments to review your ideal self. Decide if the vision of who you want to be is really who you want to be. If it is, do everything in your power to clear the clutter and get as close to that ideal as possible. If it isn’t, let go of those misperceptions and their associated clutter. Make room for an ideal self you actually desire and have the motivation to pursue.

Life is too short to fill it with clutter. Live as close to your ideal self as possible.

Ask Unclutterer: Gift bag storage

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We just purchased our first home and we are in the process of organizing everything. One thing that I have no idea how to handle is my large collection of gift bags, gift boxes, ribbons, bows, etc. I had them shoved into plastic bins at the bottom of our guest room closet at the old house, but the bags stick out everywhere, and items jump out of the boxes every time I try to retrieve something, and generally make the entire process of gift wrapping a pain. I need to get to these bags a few times a year for birthdays and holidays.

One of the more creative solutions I’ve seen is a dedicated filing cabinet drawer for storing wrapping supplies. Gift bags were kept upright, like file folders, and so were the flat gift boxes. Spools of ribbon were threaded through a bar that had been cut out of a hanging file folder, and were suspended across the drawer. Bows were stored in a few hanging file pockets, organized by type. Finally, magnetic strips had been attached to the backs of a pair of scissors and a tape dispenser, and these items were suspended from the side of the file drawer. Until the drawer was opened, I had no idea what was contained inside of it.

There are also storage totes made especially for gift bags and boxes. Once you move the bags and boxes into their new storage solution, it might be easier to contain the remaining bows and ribbons in the bins you already have.

You could also hang all the gift bags by their handles from an open ended pants hanger. The bags would take up some space in a closet, but this solution would again free up room in your current storage bins so you could better organize the other items.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Definitely check the comments for additional ideas from our readers. My hope is that one of us will be able to find you a perfect solution.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: What to do with sentimental t-shirts?

Reader Dawn submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My son has played sports since he was 5 yrs old and between me, my husband and him, we are overrun with “spirit” shirts with his name & number. Of course, he’s switched teams over the years, and has grown, so although a cute memento, I only need to keep 1 per team for the memory box. So, what do I do with the rest? I’m hesitant to donate them because they have his name on the back. Do you have any suggestions for me?

For the cotton spirit shirts you want to toss, I recommend cutting them up and using them as rags. If they would create more rags than you could possibly use in a lifetime, ask your friends, family, and local charity if they could use some cotton rags. Someone will want them.

If the fabric is polyester, you can actually recycle it. Call or check the website for your local recycling center to see if they accept polyester. It’s expensive to recycle and not all recycling centers accept polyester, so be sure to call before you make your donation.

Regarding the shirts you plan to keep, have you thought about having them sewn into a quilt instead of leaving them in a memory box? I think you might enjoy having a quilt to take with you to your son’s sporting events that is made up of all of his previous team shirts. The other parents in the stands might also have fun looking at it and taking a stroll down memory lane. There are companies that offer this service which you can find online, quilters you can hire through Etsy, and probably even your local quilt shop knows of someone in your vicinity who would be willing to sew it for you.

If one particular shirt holds special meaning (a state championship, his very first team shirt) you might also consider putting it in a frame and hanging it in his room as artwork. Since you’re going to the trouble of keeping some of the shirts, why not celebrate them?

Also, ask yourself if you really want to keep a copy of each shirt. Would just a few highlights have the same meaning for you and your son? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that question, just something to consider.

Thank you, Dawn, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Make your own guitar picks

Do you play the guitar, bass, or mandolin? Do you have old membership cards cluttering up your wallet? If so, the Pick Punch might be a useful tool for you:

I’ve always thought picks were ridiculously expensive for what they are. Additionally, I always seem to need one. Making your own picks from recycled membership cards just makes a lot of sense to me. If we would have had one of these when my husband and I first started playing picked instrument, we could easily have saved hundreds of dollars. A simple, high utility, uncluttered solution for people who play picked instruments.

Image via Pick Punch.

Getting your garage and sporting equipment ready for summer

Although the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has me wanting to spend time indoors, the sunny skies and 70 degree temperatures are tempting me to head outside. As a compromise, I’ve been doing work in our new garage where I can hear the team analysis on one of the 200 ESPN stations and still feel like I’m outside with the garage door open.

If you’re considering doing work in your garage this weekend or in the coming weeks, be sure to check out Unclutterer posts we’ve already written on organizing your garage and related topics:



Sporting Equipment

Ask Unclutterer: Displaying a collection

Reader Star submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My husband [and I] like to collect restaurant menus where we have had memorable meals. As you can imagine these are all shapes, sizes, colors and quality. Right now they are sitting in a plastic box awaiting some action from us. Can you please offer some suggestions as to how best to display/store/organize them?

What a fun collection! I’m going to give you just one suggestion, and it’s based on what we have done in our home with memorable concert posters. I hope our readers then provide you with even more suggestions in the comments. Among all our suggestions, hopefully you will find a solution that works best for you.

My recommendation is to find frames and hang them all as a collection. You can either do all of the frames in a matching style or find frames in all different styles. When you group them on the wall, it will be obvious they are a collection. And, in my opinion, a collection like this would be wonderful on a wall in a dining room or kitchen.

The reason I suggest hanging them up is so you can see them every day and be reminded of the happy memories each time you look at them. If they’re in a box, like they are now, you can’t regularly enjoy them.

Thank you, Star, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Now, go and check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.