How To Properly Store Old Photographs

Preserving Memories for Future Generations

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Do you value your family heirloom photos and the images you've collected? Be sure to treat them that way.

Yes, you can learn how to store and preserve old photographs so they will last for generations to come. This means more than placing them in a photo album, especially the "magnetic" type also known as "peel and stick." That's a big blunder waiting to happen. Don't worry though, this task is easy to tackle by following the helpful step by step directions below.

Before you get started, keep in mind that handling old photographs as little as possible is advised by professionals. Plan to wear clean, cotton gloves as often as possible when doing so. Touching the print side of a photo with your fingers can leave behind oils that can damage your precious heirlooms and collectibles alike. Support the photos properly as well as you're sorting and identifying them, since they can sometimes be fragile and bending them can cause damage and ruin them.

You will often see the words "acid free" in association with photo storage guidance, including the instructions below. Do not take this advice lightly. Many ordinary types of cardboard and plastics can emit gasses that are very detrimental to photographic papers and images. 

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: 5 minutes per photo

Here's How to Do It:

  1. Take your photos out of "magnetic" or peel and stick albums. The materials they are made of - usually ordinary plastic, glue and cardboard - will damage photos over time. If you do decide to use a commercially available photo album, look for one labeled "acid-free." The type purchased at discount stores may not fall into this category, so check the labels carefully. A visit to a hobby shop or photo supply store may be in order to find the safest type of album.
  1. Remove any glue, tape, staples, rubber bands, and paper clips that might stain, scratch or dent photographs before placing them in an acid-free album, storage box, or frame (see more on proper framing in step six below). Only clean, dry metal boxes or cardboard boxes labeled "acid free" should be used for storing photos.
  1. Be sure to label the back of the photo gently with a permanent marker. Include as much information as possible including the names and ages of those in the photo along with where the photograph was taken. This will help those might inherit your photographs years from now to identify them. Do not use a ballpoint pen to write on the back of photographs. The pressure of the pen may not only damage the photo, but the ink will very likely fade over time and your labeling efforts will be lost to future generations.
  2. To store photographs individually, place them in plastic sleeves void of PVC. These can be purchased at photo supply stores and some craft stores. Plastic sandwich bags are a good, inexpensive alternative to plastic sleeves if special supplies do not fit into your budget.
  3. Store large quantities of photos by layering them between sheets of acid free paper in metal or cardboard boxes marked acid-free. Large photo archive boxes can be easily stacked in a cabinet or closet, or even slid under a bed if storage space is at a premium.
  4. When framing, use acid free mats to keep photos from touching the glass and acid free backboards to avoid deterioration of the image. If you are having a photograph professionally framed, be sure to tell the framer you want acid-free materials if they don't ask what you would prefer. The acid-free route is more expensive (but worth it), so they probably won't use them automatically.
  1. If you are framing a precious photograph, consider having it duplicated before placing it under glass just in case it fades over time while on display. Or, frame the copy and keep the original away from light to preserve it. 

Tips:

  1. Wood and wood products, like cardboard and paper, harm photographs and should only be used if labeled "acid free."
  2. A good rule of thumb is storing photos where you are also comfortable: not too hot, cold, wet or dry.
  3. Keep photos out of attics, garages and basements where they'll be subject to extreme temperature fluctuations and excessive humidity.

What You Will Need:

  • PVC-free sleeves or plastic bags
  • Acid-free or metal storage boxes
  • Black permanent markers
  • Acid free paper, mats and backboards

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