Caring for Your Photographs

Everyone has old photos sitting around somewhere.  Have you ever thought about how they were stored?  Or how their method of storage might harm the photographs?  This post will address those issues for the traditional printed photograph.  For digital photographs, take a look at my earlier post A Digital-Age New Year’s Resolution which addresses digital media storage.  I’m basing these recommendations on a combination of what I have learned in my coursework, during my internship and volunteering, and my scrapbooking hobby.

Loose Photographs:

In an archive, all photos are stored in Mylar sleeves within record center boxes.  These sleeves are acid-free, provide stability, and prevent further damage to the photographs, such as fingerprints or creases.  While these are the best method for storing photographs, this practice would not be easily replicated at home.  Why?  The sleeves must be ordered from an archival supply service and are costly.  For at home use, there are several methods to store these photographs.

First, the photos can be placed in albums or scrapbooks.  Please look below for further guidelines on those methods.

Second, use acid-free photo storage boxes.  These boxes can be found at most craft stores* with either photograph albums or scrapbooking supplies.  While the photos could be organized within using no archival methods, it is better to follow them.  At the very lease, I would layer acid-free paper between the photographs.  At the best, I would make my own photo enclosures.  This can be done my cutting 12 inch square scrapbooking sleeves into quarters.  The smaller scrabooking sleeves can also be used, but the 12″ by 12″ ones create four 4″ X 6″ sleeves or two 5″ by 7″ and two 4″ by 6″ sleeves.  The 4″ by 6″ can also easily hold 3″ by 5″ photos and could be cut in half to accommodate wallet-sized (2″ by 3″ photos)  The goal it to have the at least one, but preferably two, of the scrapbooking sleeve edges as part of the enclosure.  If needed, the open sides of the enclosure can be sewed shut (encapsulation); just make sure to sew only on the Mylar and never the photo.  Below are some diagrams:

How to place four 4" by 6" photos to make photo sleeves.

How to place four 4″ by 6″ photos to make photo sleeves.

How to place two 5" by 7" and two 4" by 6" photos to make photo sleeves.

How to place two 5″ by 7″ and two 4″ by 6″ photos to make photo sleeves.

Note: I opted to use postcards and backwards photographs for the demonstration photos to preserve the privacy of my family and friends.  Also, you can opt to trim off the with the holes by cutting no closer to the main sleeve than the  middle dashed line.

Photographs in Albums:

If photograph albums are your preferred method for showing off non-framed photos, be sure to use the ones with acid-free, sleeved pages.  Craft stores sell these types; the “big box stores” like Wal-Mart and K-Mart usually don’t.   The best deal I have found is at Hobby Lobby.  They sell leather-covered, acid-free photo albums which hold 200 photos for $6.99.

Never, ever use a sticky photo album!  They were popular back in the 1970s and 1980s and are still sold in some places.  If you have photos in one of these, you should strongly consider removing them from the album and transferring the photos to an acid-free, sleeved version.  Depending on the glue the sticky albums used, the photos may or may not be easy to remove.  If you have problems removing the photos, seek professional help.  Otherwise you risk damaging the photos.  Just be sure if you try it yourself, take it slow and steady when removing the photos; otherwise they could be damaged worse.  Also, once removed, the photos may be slightly curled but the problem will be remedied once in an album.  If the curl is sever, contact an archival professional about rehumidifcation.

Photographs and Scrapbooking:

Scrapbooking is a popular hobby.  I partake in it myself.  Most scrabooking supplies are made to be acid-free (many also ligin-free).  However, in some cases acid-free really means acid reduced; this is because adhesive can never truly be acid-free.  It also means the acid on the stickers and scrapbook mounting strips can potentially harm photos and other mementos over the years.  This leads to two recommendations.  First, never place a sticker on a photo or memento in the scrapbook.  Second, use photo corners as much as possible.  This way the adhesive never touches the object; it just touches the paper.

I will be the first to say scrapbook mounting strips can never be fully avoided.  I still use them myself.  However, I use them only for non-photos and non-mementos unless the photos are duplicate copies (I frequently print copies specifically for scrapbooking in addition to those for albums).  Then, and only then, will I use them directly on the photos.  The other exception would be if the photos had been rounded.

Labeling Photos:

You will want to label any unlabeled photos.  Use soft (art) pencils, not ink!  Ink, even the acid-free variety, can bleed (if not initially, it could if water damaged occurred).  When you write on the back of the photo, place a piece of glass underneath.  Because of the hardness of the glass, no ridges will be formed during the writing process.  This ridges would cause one to see the mirror image of the writing on the front of the photograph and are never desired.  They can occur even when writing on a wooden surface because the wood is still too soft and porous.  If you don’t have glass, an old mirror or piece of Formica will also work.

And even of you labeled the photos in the album or scrapbook pages, but sure to still label the photo.  That way if it should become separated, the data is not lost.

Other notes:

These same guidelines also work for non-photographic material   Sleeves can be made larger to accommodate 8″ by 10″ photos or letters.  All methods work equally well for postcard collections, ticket stubs, and other smaller paper-based mementos.

This post is in honor of Preservation Week.  Here’s a bit of history on Preservation Week.  Sponsored by the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services, a division of the American Library Association, it focuses on ways to connect “communities through events, activities, and resources” that highlight the division’s role to preserve personal and library- and archive-held collections.  To learn more, check out the Preservation Week website.  This week’s post is aimed at helping those with personal collections or for institutions that lack adequate funding.

Do you plan to take this advice into account?  Do you have any questions?

*Craft stores that sell acid-free material include Michaels, Hobby Lobby, JoAnn Fabric and Craft, and Ben Franklin Craft.

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13 thoughts on “Caring for Your Photographs

  1. Amy
    This is important information for people to understand, thanks for taking the time to post it.
    Thanks again for a great post.
    Bart

  2. Pingback: More on Photo and Digital Preservation | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

  3. Reblogged this on The Treasure Trove and commented:
    Hi readers! Want to know how to care for those photos you have printed out from the ‘good old days’? Check out Amy Nickless’ blog post (a fellow archivist, who really seems to know her stuff) to find out how! She even tells you where to go to buy the materials!

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