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Tips for Preserving Photographs

I enjoy looking at old photographs.  When looking through my grandfather’s photo album the other day, I noticed a lot of the pictures were not labeled and the photo album was starting to fall apart.  That got me to thinking about ways to preserve the photographs.  I decided to share tips for preserving photographs as well as a few pictures from my grandfather’s days as a student at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in the 1920’s.  Click on the photograph to enlarge.

  1. Identify. Write lightly on the back of the picture with a soft-lead No.2 pencil.   Identify the people (use real names, not titles or nicknames), date, occasion, location and other pertinent information. Do not write with an ink pen or felt-tip marker because the ink will bleed through the photo.
  2. Organize.
    • Photo albums are a good way to organize your photographs.  The album should contain acid free paper and contain PVC-free plastics such as, Polypropylene, Polyester, Polyethelyne, Tyvek and Mylar.  Look for products labeled “archival” or “archival safe.”
    • Do not use photo albums that feature plastic sheeting over gummed pages.  The adhesives, papers and plastics will damage the photographs over time.
    • It is best to use photo albums with sleeves to secure the photograph in the album.  If you prefer to fasten the photograph to the page;  archival mounting corners are good method for securing photographs
    • Do not use regular glue or tape to hold photographs in albums.  These items contain chemicals which will cause the photograph to deteriorate. Use special photo-safe glue and tape instead.
    • Do not place metal fasteners (paper clips,staples, etc.) or rubber bands on photos. Fasteners will rust and tear or indent photographs. Rubber bands will melt and become stuck to the photograph.
  3. Store.
    • Store loose photographs in acid-free paper boxes with acid-free paper dividers.
    • Store photographs and photo albums in a cool, dark, dry place with low humidity.   Exposure to extreme conditions such as heat, cold, high humidity or direct sunlight cause photographs to deteriorate and/or grow mildew.
    • If you have negatives, store the negatives in a separate location from the pictures
    • Do not store photos in attics, garages and basements. These are rarely insulated and do not have controlled temperatures.  Additionally those areas usually contain pest and rodents which like to eat paper.
    • Keep photographs on a high shelf away from areas where they may come in contact with water or fire. Do not store photographs near fireplaces, heaters, dryers, water pipes or in areas prone to flooding.
  4. Repair/Restore.  
    • A torn photograph can be repaired by placing acid-free archival tape on the back. Do not put tape on the front of the photograph.   Only use acid-free archival tape because the other types of tape will yellow over time and stain.
    • A damaged photograph can be repaired by scanning it and using image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop.  In some cases you may need to enlist the services of a professional who specializes in photo restoration. I have used the services of Drew Klausner at pixlfixl  to restore several photos and have been very pleased with the results.
  5. Display.   Do not display original photographs (especially old ones). Exposure to light can damage the photograph and will cause it to deteriorate.  It is best to frame a copy of a photograph instead of the original.
  6. Digitize.  Scan photographs and store on a CD or flash drive. Store the CD or flash drive in a different location from the photographs.
  7. Copy.  Make extra print copies of photographs.  Be sure to print on top-quality acid-free, archival paper.   Make a photocopy of any original writing on the photograph and keep it attached to the photograph copy.  Keep the copies in a different location than the originals and share with family members.
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