[The images in this post are from a photograph album by an unknown donor, and very little identifying information is included with the images. They are not dated, but it is estimated they range from the late 1800s to the 1920s. If you have any information about the album or the people in the pictures, please leave a comment or contact the Wright Museum.]
Chances are you have some old photographs or scrapbooks sitting around at home, and you want to preserve those memories as long as possible. Proper storage materials and conditions can be expensive, but there are some steps you can take that cost little or no money.
Obviously, you want to keep your scrapbooks so you and your family can take them out and look at them, but the more you handle them, the more damage the sustain. This is an issue museums and archives deal with frequently. When you do handle your scrapbooks and photograph albums, do so with care. Do not fold photographs and make sure they lay flat and are not bent when closing the photo album. Keep food and beverages and other liquids away from them.
Protect them from light: All lights and especially UV lights (from the sun and fluorescent lights, for example) will damage your photographs and cause fading over time.
Protect from fingerprints: The oils in human skin leave a mark on photographs. You may not be able to see it right away, but over time the oils break down the photos and the fingerprints will be more visible.
If you look carefully at the photo above (click the image to enlarge), on the bottom part of the woman’s shirt are lines from someone’s fingerprints. Right in the middle of the photograph! When possible, wear white cotton gloves to handle photographs, and otherwise only handle them by their edges.
If you decide to scan your photos, try to scan them only once – again, the light is damaging to photographs. Be careful when scanning scrapbooks – flipping them over onto a flat-bed scanner can cause damage. The images on this page were digitized with a camera. In this case, using a traditional scanning methods would have caused much more damage for the album.
Environment control: The ideal storage conditions are a steady 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 35 % relative humidity. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity are very damaging to books and photographs. Michigan weather can be particularly harsh! Try to keep precious items from exposure to high temperatures and humidity levels as much as possible.
Storage: Small albums can be stored upright on a shelf, away from direct light. Larger or bulging albums should lay flat and not be stacked.
Acid-free storage: Many old scrapbooks, and even some newer ones, are made with acidic paper. The paper itself breaks down over time and can become very brittle. Small pieces of this photo album’s pages have come off during the digitization process. The acid from the paper also breaks down the photographs. If the images are glued to the paper, however, removing them can often cause more damage than leaving them. If possible, place thin sheets of acid-free paper in between the photographs and the opposite page, as this provides some level of protection. However, be careful that the added papers do not add too much bulk to the album and over-stuff its binding. Several companies make acid-free storage materials such as boxes.
Scrapbooks with ‘magnetic’ pages – they have a glue which sticks the photos to the page and a clear plastic film that goes over them – are very bad for the preservation of photos, as the glue can damage prints. Any type of adhesive, whether glue or tape, will break down eventually, damaging photographs in the process. A safe alternative to glues are archival photo corners.
Metal is also bad for photographs as it can rust. Avoid using staples and paper clips on your images or in your scrapbooks, and remove existing ones when you can safely do so. The above image still has a rust spot near the top where a staple or other metal object had been.
If you write on your images, be sure to use an acid-free pen or a no. 2 pencil, and press lightly.
For additional information, see Caring for Your Family Treasures by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long, available in the library, and the Library of Congress’s leaflet on scrapbook preservation at http://www.loc.gov/preserv/care/scrapbk.html.