Caring for Your Photographs

Personal collections are full of photographs of family members, special events, personal milestones, and important places. Photographs allows us to capture experiences and help us to remember them later. Whether you display your photographs in frames or organize them into albums, there are ways to ensure that these images will last a lifetime or longer.

The first and most important preservation action you can take is to take stock of what you have and want to save. Discard or give away duplicates. Label those you keep on the back lightly in pencil or permanent ink with details like location, occasion, and names of people in the images.

A box of family photos waiting to be sorted and organized.

Family photographs come in all shapes, sizes and types.

Annotations in red ballpoint pen ink may bleed--better choices are pencil and permanent inks.

Storage Options

It is easier than ever before for individuals to find preservation-quality storage materials for photographic materials. Make sure that any storage materials pass the Photograph Activity Test (PAT). The PAT is an international standard test used to evaluate storage materials and display products marketed for use with photographs.

Use boxes, like on the left, or albums, on the right, to group and store your photographs. Use paper or inert plastic photo corners to hold images in albums or to backing boards in frames. Adhesives and pressure-sensitive tapes used to attach images to album leaves create preservation problems as they age and can damage original prints. In using plastic sleeves to organize your photos, look for those made from polypropylene or polyethylene, which are stable plastics that do not off-gas volatile compounds that can discolor image layers or cause the paper base to become brittle.

Photo envelope and box storage systems are available for purchase.   Sleeved photographs can be organized and stored in a 3 ring binder.

Avoid Pre-Coated Album Pages

Magnetic album pages were popular for organizing personal photographs in the 1970s and ’80s. The parallel lines of adhesive on the pages allowed for easy repositioning of images when first arranged in the album. Unfortunately, as the adhesive ages, photographs may become more permanently affixed and difficult to remove without being damaged. The adhesive also may discolor the photos as it yellows and ages.

The adhesive between the two bottom photos on this album page has deteriorated and yellowed over time.

Delicate and Damaged Items

It is best to seek the advice of a professional conservator to deal with tightly rolled panoramic photographs, fractured glass, or prints with flaking surfaces. If it can be done safely without causing more damage, consider scanning images in poor condition. Use image-editing software to enhance images with damage, fading, or color changes. Print out new copies for framing and sharing and put originals away for safe keeping. In the before and after images below, a tear from a section of this panoramic photo has been digitally repaired.

The tear under the word “Class” can be mended digitally.

The tear beneath “Class” is no longer visible and this enhanced version is now suitable for framing and display.

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