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.