Safely Labeling Your Old Family Photos
5/30/2013
You've got questions about discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history; our experts have the answers.
Q. Before I knew any better, all my family photos are marked on the back in ballpoint pen. Will this damage them? Will the ink eventually seep through? I now have an archival marker for pictures going forward.

Q. It seems that all the articles about photo restoration say not to write on the back of photos with anything other than a soft-lead pencil. Several years ago, I wrote names, etc. on the back of some of my photos using a waterproof and permanent ink marker that I purchased at a photography store. The pictures are still in perfect condition today. Is there any reason I shouldn't be using this marking pen?

A. Both of these questions address a similar issue: how to place identification on a photograph. There are products on the market that make this question easy to answer.

If you can, use a soft lead pencil to write information—including who's in a photo, the date it was taken, the occasion, and where it was taken—on the back of a photograph (where the information will never become separated from the image). Soft lead is important because hard lead pencils will leave an indentation. Place the photo face down on a clean, dry surface and write with light pressure.
 
Unfortunately, pencils won't work on the coated papers used for today's photographs. Instead, purchase an odorless (when dry), waterproof, soft-tip marker. Just be careful to let the ink dry completely before you stack or store the image, because it is permanent. Ballpoint pens and regular felt-tip markers are not good choices for labeling photos: Ballpoint pens smudge and leave indentations in the photograph, and felt tip markers can bleed through the image. The good news is there are lots of choices for safe labeling tools in art supply stores and craft shops.

If you have photographs marked with ballpoint pens, any damage is already done. Previous generations didn't have access to the photo-safe tools we have today. Don't worry too much about it. You can scan the photos to preserve the image and digitally repair ink smudges, and make sure that you use appropriate products when identifying your photographs.

Our Family Archivist's Photo Preservation Kit has photo-safe labeling tools, storage materials, instructions and more to help you preserve your family photo collection for generations to come. 
 
Learn to identify and preserve family photos with our Rescue Your Family Photos kit
 
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