Preserving Photographs


Almost all of us have old photographs sitting somewhere in our house – in a box, in the attic, in a dresser. For years, my mother kept photographs from her great-grandmother’s family in an old hamper. Photographs are often stored in less than perfect settings. Although very few of us have the equipment or time to house our photographs in the best possible way, we can do a few easy things to help our photographs survive the passage of time. Here are a few of the main things you should consider to help your photos:


Unfortunately, the most common storage place for photographs is also the worst. Temperatures in the attics and basements of most houses fluctuate drastically throughout the year. The change between sweltering summer heat and freezing winter frost stresses photographs. Constant temperature and humidity for photographs is extremely helpful. Storing your photos in a room that stays a comfortable temperature throughout the year will prevent cracking and other damage to your photos.


The effects of light, whether natural or man-made, can be quite severe over time. Leaving photos by a sunny window is one of the worst things for them, and indoor lights can also do damage. If your photos are not on display, they should be kept somewhere dark – inside of a box, an album, or a closet. For photos that are on display, museum-quality glass can be purchased from almost any craft store. Museum glass filters light like sunblock, keeping most of the harmful rays from affecting whatever is underneath it.


Almost all paper is acidic, and some plastics are as well. The problem with acidic materials is that they react with whatever they are touching. Have you ever left a newspaper clipping in a book, only to see it turn the pages of the book yellow? Newspaper is one of the most acidic types of paper, but almost all paper has some level of acidity. In order to prevent yellowing and staining over time, there are several things you can do. Archival companies like Gaylord or University Products offer acid-free tissue paper for interleaving. Storing your photos in acid free boxes is also a good idea. As far as plastics go, Mylar is the top of the line option, but it can get expensive. If you want your photos in plastic, polyethylene or polypropylene plastics are a good alternative.


Generally, it is a good idea to avoid doing anything to your photos that will permanently alter them. Glues, even those in self-adhesive photo albums, will deteriorate and yellow your photos over time. Staples leave holes and will rust over time. Ideal photo storage should be able to be done and un-done without damage to the photos.

One of the best things you can now do for your photos is to have them digitized. Scanning your photographs and putting them on a CD or hard drive (or both!) is a great idea. You can share digital photos more easily with friends and family, and if anything happens to the original you can still have the image.

If you are very concerned about your old photographs, try looking up a photo conservator in your area. The above guidelines apply generally to photographs, but material and chemical composition has changed over time, from the tin-type to the Polaroid. A professional will be able to give you the most detailed and accurate guidelines for preserving your photos.

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