Preserving the Treasure Trove

Remember the collection of photos and documents of my great-grandmother’s I obtained  and wrote about a few weeks ago?  Here’s the next installment of the story.  If you need a refresher, here’s the link to the earlier post.

Over the last two weeks I actively worked with the collection.  I began by sorting through the collection and dividing the material by content type.  While photographs were the most popular item, there were also cards, letters, certificates, newspaper clippings, documents, and her well-worn Bible.  During this process, I also tossed unnecessary material, such as envelopes and folders.

The larger sticky album I removed photos from.

The larger sticky album I removed photos from. And yes, I am working on a table tennis table.

Next, I freed the photographs from the sticky albums.  Anyone can do this, but it requires skill and patience.  The process involves freeing a corner and slowing peeling the photo off the page.  The photo must be pulled evenly and tautly to facilitate this while avoiding tears.  If one acts too fast, the photos could tear. What I previously found useful for the really struck or large (ex. 8″ X 10″) photos was to slide a microspatula underneath it.  The microspatuala provides support and since it is much thinner than a finger, it won’t accidentally bend a photo in the removal process.  Sliding one underneath is often enough to dislodge a photo without much, if any, damage.  Thus I used this technique a few times.

While removing the photos, it is critical to maintain the order of the photos.  Archival science uses two rules when organizing collections: Original Order and Provenance.  Original Order calls for records to be kept in the order which the previous owner had maintained them.  Provenance requires that the collection must be kept together.  In this example, Original Order is the critical thing to remember, as there are no plans to break up the collection.  Thus, keeping this in mind, I began a pile of face-down photos on the table next to me.  This allowed me to keep them in order, especially when I picked up the pile and turned it over to work with.

After freeing the photos from the two sticky albums, I turned my focus to the other photos.  There were five framed photos, loose photos, and a non-sticky album.  I unframed the larger photos and set them aside.  Next, I sorted through the loose photographs and attempted to place them in chronological order.  With some photos, this was easy as they were dated.  With others I had to guesstimate the decade by how my relatives looked, the clothes they wore, and the deterioration of the emulsions (many 1970s and early 1980s color prints have a reddish hue and look faded).  I then recombined the stack, ensuring the top photos were the oldest and the bottom the most recent.  Then, I set the stack aside.

Layout of a spread in a sticky album and my workspace.

Layout of a spread in a sticky album and my workspace.

My next step was to add all the 4″ X 6″ and smaller photos to a new acid-free album.  This is the part that took me several times to get right, as I didn’t want to fill a partial album.  After two takes of not fitting every photo in, I whittled some out to be labeled as to their original order and placed elsewhere.  I know this goes against archival practice, but the ones removed were either landscape shots or really bad takes.  Removing the landscapes broke my heart, as that is one of my favorite types of photographs to take*, but I wanted to ensure the photos of family were the main focus.  Plus it has the added benefit of predetermining some photos not to scan.  In the end, the photos from the oldest album were placed first in their original order, less the landscapes (these were dated late 1950s through the 1970s).  These were followed by a few loose photos before the next album, the non-sticky one,were added (all 1980s).  Photos from the last album came next (early 1990s). Lastly, the loose photos from the late 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s thus far were added.  The photos not used in the final album were documented and placed back into sleeved pages form the non-sticky album and transferred to the back of the binder the next paragraph will discuss.

Using a microspatula to help remove a stuck photo.

Using a microspatula to help remove a stuck photo.  If I wasn’t taking the photo too, my other hand would have been holding that top right corner.

With the smaller photos were cared for, the process turned to the larger items.  Remember the acid-free, archival-grade page protectors I found at Office Max?  This is where I used them.  Each 5″ X 7″ and 8″ x 10″ was placed in its own sleeve with a piece of acid-free paper behind it.  After the photos, I did the same with certificates, letters, and documents.  With smaller items, such as the newspaper clippings, I utilized acid-free scrapbooking photo corners to place multiple items on a sheet of acid-free paper then sleeved the page.**   Since all of the material was dated, it was easy to place it back into its original order.  I then places these pages back into the cover of one of the two old sticky albums.  This album had a three-ring binder system, so I just discarded the old pages for the new sleeves.  This allowed me to keep a beautiful cover instead of opting for a plastic-covered traditional three-ring binder from Wal-Mart.  Again, under normal archival situations all of these photos plus the ones placed in the album would have been placed in acid-free folders within Hollinger or record center boxes.  I opted for my method because the photos would be heavily viewed and I don’t have those boxes available to me.

In the end, I took material that filled a copy paper box and reduced and rehoused it down to an amount that would fill the box’s lid.  There is one album, one binder, the scrapbook Mom and I made for her 100th birthday which I left intact (archival standards to begin with), and her Bible.  Everything that needs preserved had been and the collection remains intact.  The next step is scanning images to both share them and preserve digital copies.

Any questions about what I did or how I modified archival practices to a home/family setting?

6/21/13 Addition:  Anne Cox, a photograph archivist, posted a link to a useful video in the comments.  It demonstrates how non-waxed, unflavored dental floss can be used to remove photos from sticky albums.  As an added bonus, the video briefly describes how these sticky albums, marketed as magnetic albums, can damage photos over time.  Here’s the link:

* I sideline and have a hobby taking landscape and nature photos.  Maybe I’ll share tips sometime as a bonus post.
**If the acid-free pages later turn yellowish from contact with the non-acid-free material, I can exchange them for new ones.  This helps protect the photos better by removing some of their acidity, thus increasing longevity.


11 thoughts on “Preserving the Treasure Trove

  1. Thank you for sharing this video and technique Anne! I hadn’t heard of using dental floss, but knowing that is an option is helpful! I wish I knew about that when I removed the 8″ X10″s from the sticky pages, as it would have been much, much easier! Thanks again!

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