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Friday, January 28, 2011

Protecting Your Valued Photographs

By Nita Davis

vintage photographs by Gracey
Lets face it, few people actual store ALL of their photographs within albums. Most have at least some of their photos in some type of box, tucked away in a closet, basement or attic. Even photos that are being stored long term are important, so what can we do to protect our stored photographs? 

The first step to protecting your stored photographs isn't really all that difficult or expensive. Get rid of that ordinary cardboard box and place your photographs in a metal or acid free archival quality box. These can be purchased at your local hobby or photo store or on line for as low as $5.00 a box. It is important to remember that wood or wood products not labeled 'acid-free' should be avoided as they emit chemical fumes that will harm your photographs and accelerate the deterioration process. When you are transferring those photos from that old cardboard box make sure to remove them from any non archival safe envelopes,  archival safe envelopes and plastic sleeves can be used instead. A few other things you want to watch for and remove are rubber bands and paperclips as these can also damage your photos. Organizing your stored photos is a matter of personal preference. However, if you want to make it easier to find specific photographs that are in long term storage having some sort of organizational system in place will help. You can arrange your photos by year, event or some other topic, it is totally up to you.

Next you want to make sure to place that new acid-free box of photographs in a safe environment. The ideal environment is a dark area around 65 degrees Ferinheight and 50% humidity, in other words someplace that is cool, dark and dry. The best place is one that has minimal fluctuations in temperature and humidity, so try to avoid places such as basements and attics. When looking for that place also ask yourself where in your home would be least likely to sustain water or fire damage. A quick note about storing the original prints of rare and important photographs; The best place to do this is a bank safety deposit box as they are climate controlled and secure. Now that you have safely stored those photographs don't forget that they will still deteriorate with time.

It would be a good idea to plan how you wish to back up your photographs. You may want to scan them all and make a digital archive, or you may want to make copies of the most important photos dividing them between a few family members so that if one copy is damaged there is another copy. Another possibility is to have one family member store the photographs and another store the negatives. Either way you will want to plan a time to go through them and decide which photos you want to archive and thus preserve for future generations.

With the stored photographs protected it is time to think about what can be done to protect the photos we share and display. Do we really need to do anything to protect them from rapid deterioration? The answer is yes.

When purchasing new albums and scrapbooks or scrapbook supplies you want to make sure that they are 'acid free', as not all albums and paper supplies are acid free and will accelerate the deterioration process if used. [see below note about 'acid free' or archival safe labeling] It is best to avoid magnetic self adhesive photo albums as these are generally not archival quality and the adhesive will damage your photos. Take a minute and look at your older photo albums and scrapbooks, if you have photos in magnetic albums I recommend transferring these to a newer non-magnetic album. Some people will suggest taking apart old scrapbooks made with the black pages as they are definitely not acid free, however when you take apart a scrapbook often important information pertaining to the photos within is lost. Instead I recommend scanning each page of the album at a minimum 300dpi, that way you have a copy of not only the photos but all the information as it originally appears in the scrapbook. Another thing to watch for with older albums is photos sticking to the plastic sheaths, if this is happening I suggest transferring all photos that haven't stuck to the plastic to a newer album and scanning those that have stuck. In and upcoming article on saving damaged photos we will give more attention to this and other problems such as photos stuck together and those with mold on them.

Photo books are another nice way to share your photos, however when you are ordering your photo book I suggest making sure that the book you order will be archival quality as some quick labs, although they offer photo books at very inexpensive prices, the paper used in the printing of the books is not archival quality paper so the photos will fade much faster than those purchased from a photographer or photo design company such as Artistix Network LLC which uses a professional photo lab for processing. Whatever type of books  or albums you choose to use remember these too should be kept in a cool dry place.

Things to keep in mind when framing your photos. First and foremost never place your framed photo in direct sunlight as this will cause rapid fading. Photographs can and will stick to the glass if they remain in a frame for a long period of time without the benefit of a Window Matt. UV protected glass can reduce the risk of light damage. Chemicals used to treat some wood frames can cause the frame to omit unsafe fumes which can accelerate deterioration of your photograph, so if you are like me and love the look of wood frames you may want to make sure there is a digital back up of that precious photograph.

A note about 'acid free' or archival safe labeling: Unfortunately because 'acid free' and 'archival safe' labeling is not regulated even some that are marked accordingly may not be. To be 100% sure you can purchase a PH pen and test the products before you purchase or use them. Purchasing your archival supplies from a reputable archival company such as Gaylord, Light Impressions Direct or Metal Edge Inc. can eliminate your concerns as they all use the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) to make sure their products are safe for use with photographs. 
For clear plastic photo storage items be sure to look for the following safe products: Polyester, Mylar, Polypropylene, Polyethelene, Tyvek.

Is it necessary to preserve every photo you own with archival safe products? Absolutely not, as there are most likely many photos that while they have sentimental value to you they may not all need to be preserved for future generations. For example I have around one hundred photos from the first school I taught at, do I need to preserve all of these? No, but at the same time these photos will give future generations a little understanding of who I am. So what I have done is to compile my favorites of these photos and put them into a memory collage or as I like to call them Memory Art Prints. By doing this I now have just one photo to protect instead of 100 photos. Future generations will have the one photo that tells a story of my time teaching, and if the album I place the rest in isn't acid free it wont be a major problem.  It is up to you to decide which photos you want passed down to future generations and those are the ones that I strongly recommend you make sure to use only acid free archival safe product with.

Not sure where to purchase photo storage and archival products? Here is a list of links to online distributors of photo storage supplies. Some are definitely archival quality while others I am not sure of as they do not give information on if their products have undergone a PAT test or not:
www.pfile.com [this is the most economical, although there is no mention of PAT testing and I haven't tested them personally I do like and use the Pioneer photo albums for general photo storage.]
www.gaylord.com [recommended to me by the assistant curator of 'The Old Court House Museum' and now my personal favorite, with gaylord you can rest easy that your storage items are 100% acid free.]
www.universityproducts.com
www.talasonline.com/
http://www.archivalmethods.com/Product.cfm?categoryid=39&Productid=100
[Awesome photo archival storage system which I will be trying out and testing in the near future]

I hope you find this information helpful, and if you have any questions feel free to ask them and if I don't know the answer I will find out. Before writing this article I decided it would be a good idea to do a bit of extra research because I know there is always more to learn and I was very glad I did. It was in this recent research I discovered that 'acid free' labeling is not a guarantee that the product is actually acid free. If you are looking to become a serious family archivist you may want to check out a few of my favorite archive information resources they are the National Archives , Photo Heritage by Ralph McKnight and Bonnie Sorensen, the practical archivist Sally Jacobs.

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