Preserving Photographs & Documents
Most things in life are moments of pleasure and a lifetime of embarrassment; photography is a moment of embarrassment and a lifetime of pleasure Tony Benn
Photographs and old documents
If you’re like most people, you’ve taken a lot of family photographs over the years. They may be in an album or thrown in a box to be looked at from time to time by the kids. You might also have old family photographs of various ancestors which are in very poor condition.
Along with photographs, you might have some old letters or journals written by family members or even ancestors. And you probably have various miscellaneous documents like birth, marriage and death certificates. Here are some suggestions on how they should be stored and/or displayed
How and where they should be stored
- Documents should be stored laying flat whether horizontal or vertical, not folded in an envelope.
- Store in acid-free large envelopes or acid-free plastic made from either Mylar D, Polypropylene, or Polyethylene and Tyvek.
- Put your large negatives in paper envelopes, not plastic. Put the dull side of the negative in the envelope so it is not facing any creases or joints of the envelope. Do not place them against each other. Have a piece of acid-free paper between them.
- Do not laminate your photographs. The glue will dissolve the emulsion on the photograph.
- Avoid using rubber bands or rubber cement which contain sulphur and degrades photographic emulsions.
- Avoid using paper clips as they can abrade or scratch the surfaces of prints or negatives.
- Avoid using regular tape as it usually contains acids which can accelerate the deterioration process.
- Temperature and humidity affect photographs and documents more than any other element. The best conditions are 70 degrees Fahrenheit with relative humidity under 50%.
- High humidity is most harmful and high temperatures accelerate deterioration. Cyclic conditions (high heat and humidity followed by cold and dry weather, followed by high heat, etc.) are very bad for the emulsion and may cause cracking and separation of the emulsion from the support.
- Attics and Basements - The worst places to store your photographs or documents is in an uninsulated attic or basement. In the summer, temperatures in an attic could reach 125 degrees F. while in the winter they can get down to less than 0 degrees. With the constant high temperatures and humidity in the summer and low temperatures and humidity in the winter, the photographs or documents will become brittle. In severe cases, the emulsion (image) on the photograph can separate from the base (paper). These cyclic conditions will have a devastating effect on any paper product.
- Uninsulated basements are usually moist which can cause photographs to stick to each other. Another problem encountered in basements is that they are great breeding grounds for insects and rodents which are strongly attracted to gelatin and cellulose in the photographic emulsion.
- The best places to store important photographs or documents are in safe deposit boxes at your bank. They are usually climate controlled and kept dark to provide almost ideal storage conditions. The ideal storage conditions are 68 degrees +/- 2 degrees and 50% relative humidity +/- 5% relative humidity.
How to display your photographs
- Display copies of your photographs, not the originals. Store the originals under archival conditions as described above. Pictures will fade in sun light and even under the light from a light bulb.
- Don’t mount your photographs under glass without an air space provided at the margins of at least two layers of mat board. Photographs will stick to glass in time and can’t be removed without destroying them.
- Use “museum board” for matting material.
- Attach your photographs to the matt board with linen tape, not scotch tape or masking tape.
- Make sure that the tape covers the entire length of each edge of the photograph.
- Experiment with different colors of matt board to bring out highlights of the photographs.
How to label your photographs
- Do not write on the back of the photographs. The ink will bleed through in time as all inks contain acid.
- Of course, do not write across the face of the photograph.
- Create labels or captions that can be mounted next to the photograph.
- Use permanent ink for your labels and detail as much as possible: who, when, where, and any details in the background or foreground.
- If you have to put a label on the photograph itself, do it on the frame or line area around the photograph.
Repairing damaged photographs
- There are many photo finishing companies that have computer equipment that can remove damage such as creases, tears or cracks, and spots. (Murphy’s law: if a photograph is torn or has a crease, it will be torn or creased across the face of the person in the photograph.)
- You can also purchase computer software and make your own repairs.
Preserving photographs forever
Scan in all photographs and burn on to a DVD. The technology of preserving photographs will change over the years but one thing is for sure these technologies will only increase the ability to preserve or enhance your photographs so they will be available for future generations to see. For a fuller discussion on this topic see Personal Archiving White Pager
Include narration as well on the DVD to describe the picture. Tell the date it was taken, the people in it, what they were doing if not evident, and anything else you feel that the viewer should know about.
There is nothing more frustrating than to have a family photograph and not know who is in it, or when or where it was taken.
Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University, Preserving Memories:
Caring for Your Heritage
Library of Congress, Family Treasures
FamilySearch Tech Tips, How to preserve Photographs, Documents and Databases
FamilySearch Tech Tips, Photography How tos and tips