Caring for Your Personal Photographs
In the digital age it may be hard to remember a time when all photographs were printed out. Since the mid-2000s, most of the photos I have taken are in digital form. However, almost everything before that time has a physical copy of it and most likely the negatives are stored right next to them. Archivists often deal with photographs and negatives in the collections. There are guidelines that archivists closely follow when handling and storing photographs. You don’t have to be an archivist to follow these basic guidelines and ensure your photos last well into the future!
There are several key things to remember when storing your personal photographs.
Water, and Humidity, and Insects - Oh My!
The first task for storing photographs is to find a suitable environment. The key is to avoid areas with high temperatures and high relative humidity. Those conditions cater to the growth of mold and mildew and increase the rate of deterioration. The optimal temperature would be 68 degrees but it is key to keep the temperature consistently below 75 degrees. Keeping photographs out of the attic and basement is important if these areas are prone to fluctuations in temperature and condensation. When it is not possible to find an area that is consistent year round, dehumidifiers or fans may be necessary to stabilize the conditions. Be sure to keep photographs away from pipes and windows as they can be sources of leaks. Storing photographs on a shelf will also help them stay dry in case of flooding. Also place photographs away from areas storing food as that can be attractive to insects and rodents.
Keep these rules in mind as well when thinking about where to store photographs that are in photo albums or scrapbooks. The same care needs to be taken to safeguard those memories for the future.
Make sure to always look for acid free and lignin free products
What’s in the Box?
The next step in storing personal photographs is finding a proper container or box. The container should protect photographs from dust and light. Plastic or paper containers are fine as long as they are chemically stable and free of sulfur, acids, and peroxides. Any materials used should be lignin-free (Lignin is a complex chemical compound that causes acid to re-form in paper over time and in turn makes the paper deteriorate and turn yellow.). Containers should be big enough for the originals to lay flat or upright without folding or bending. Do not overstuff a box but make sure the box is the proper size so the materials inside do not shift. Photos should be grouped in small batches and can be separated by plastic or paper enclosures or folders. Once again keep in mind that any materials used for to batch photographs need to be free of sulfur, acids, and peroxides. Plastic sleeves should be made of uncoated polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene. Film negatives should be stored separately from photographs as they can produce acidic gasses as they age.
Photographs already stored in albums are safe to stay in the albums as long as the materials are archival safe. Albums, like the container or box, protect the photograph from physical and environmental damage. Photographs also benefit from the support provided by individual pockets. Albums should be stored in the same kind of boxes or containers used to store photographs when they are not out on display. Remember to find a box that the album fits in well so it will not move around. Avoid magnetic or self-adhesive albums as these types can damage photographs.
A crucial element of storing photographs is how you handle them. As hands can contain dirt and natural oils, there should be minimal handling of the photographs. Clean, lint-free gloves are recommended when touching photographs but if that is not possible handle photographs by the edges and touch them as little as possible. Follow these steps to handling photographs:
- View photographs in a clean, uncluttered area
- Wash and dry hands
- Wear gloves if possible or touch only the edges
- Make sure to support the photograph to avoid damage
- Use only a soft lead pencil for making notes on the back of a photograph
- Do not use pens, stamps, or adhesive labels
- Do not use metal pins, paper clips, staples, or rubber bands to fasten or bind photographs
- Do not have food or drink near photographs
Always check the packaging of any products you are purchasing to store photographs. Just because it is in the scrapbook section of store does not mean it is safe to use. Look for products that say “acid-free” and “lignin-free.” Photo storage supplies and albums can be found at craft stores and online.
You should never use pens when writing on photographs. Always use soft lead pencils and write on the back of the photograph.
Who you gonna call? Conservators!
If your photographs dirty, try carefully brushing them with a clean soft brush by proceeding from the center outward to the edges. Never use erasers. Do not try to clean photographs with or solvent based cleaners. Cleaners could cause serious, irreparable damage. Sometimes photographs may become attached to other materials. If there seems to be no way of detaching the items without causing damage it may be time to consult a photographic materials conservator. Be warned though, it will be expensive; however, a conservator may be the best option for saving a precious memory.
Another way to preserve your printed photographs is to scan them and save them in a digital format. They can then be added to any existing digital collection and not there will be multiple copies. Scanning is an excellent way to be able to view photographs without handling them. Be sure to save the photograph as a high quality image. Do not use automatic feed scanners, especially with fragile, bent, or torn photographs. This can be a very time consuming process but well worth it if scanning ensures the longevity of your memories!
Remember to also care for you digital photographs. Extra care should be given to making sure your digital photos are properly stored and saved in multiple locations. For easy access, digital photos should be organized into well labeled folders. For safety, it would be wise to have at least two copies of the photo file, although three copies are recommended. One copy can be on a computer and the other should be saved externally whether it is on an external hard drive, CD, or memory card or stick. This will prevent you from losing any of the photos if the computer crashes. In the future be sure to update what the photographs are stored on. Five, ten, or even fifteen years from now CDs and USB drives may be a thing of the past so it is important to make sure your photographs will be accessible with new technology.
There are many different ways to protect your personal photographs. These are only a few simple ways to ensure the longevity of your captured memories!
More information can be found at the following sites:
Photograph Preservation guides:
National Archives https://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives
Library of Congress Digital Preservation: http://digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: http://www.conservation-us.org/about-conservation/caring-for-your-treasures#.ViFadivYhsQ
Find a photographic conservator: Conservation-us.org