After seeing what last week’s muggy weather did to my printer cartridge, I knew it was time to write a column on preserving family photographs. The same conditions that caused my printer to spit out discolored copies can damage your photographs, as well. Mold loves warm, moist conditions. And have you ever seen what happens to a stack of color photographs left out in damp weather? They stick together. Avoid these photo woes, and save your valuable pix for posterity by following these five steps to picture preservation.
1. Handle with care.
Wear clean, white cotton gloves when handling photographs, so you don’t transfer dirt and oil to them. Hold images by their edges rather than a single corner (which might break off). Proper handling helps protect pictures from scratches and fingerprints.
2. Store pix properly.
The worst places to store your pictures are the attic, basement and garage, where temperature and humidity fluctuate and where bugs, rodents and other creatures make their homes. Instead, find a windowless closet away from water pipes and heat sources. This spot will provide a buffer against external changes in temperature and humidity.
3. Choose the right archival products.
Remember that the word archival, which often appears on product labels, doesn’t guarantee that a product is photo-safe. Select boxes and folders made from acid- and lignin-free paper to protect your images from the acid found in most paper and cardboard. To store negatives, use polypropylene or Mylar sleeves, rather than nonspecific “plastic” ones that emit harmful gases. And never use magnetic albums, which use an adhesive that will damage your images over time. You can find these photo-save archival products at many scrapbook and art-supply stores.
4. Identify your pictures.
The fastest way to make your pictures disappear is to leave them unidentified. If you want your descendants to care about their heritage, then be sure to label your pictures. You’ll need a few tools: a soft-lead pencil for marking paper photographs; an odorless, waterproof and quick-drying marker for writing on resin-coated pictures; and small boxes for cased images. To identify cased images, write the information on the outside of the box, or include a small piece of acid- and lignin-free paper with the image. To identify paper pictures, place them face down on a clean, dry surface, and gently write on the backs using the proper writing utensil. Never write on the front of a picture or use ballpoint or felt-tip markers, which can bleed through an image.
5. Include your photos in your will.
If you don’t want your pictures discarded or sold in an estate sale, include them in your will. There’s probably someone in the family who would love to care for family photographs. You also can research libraries and archives that collect family materials. Ask the curator if your collection is appropriate for the institution.
These five steps are easy to implement, so you have no excuse not to take care of your photographs. Your descendants will thank you.