Preserving Family Photos

Preserving Family Photos

Learn how to rescue and preserve your family photos for future generations.

Our ancestors didn’t live forever, but our pictures of them can. Well, maybe not forever, but a well-cared-for photograph can last many generations longer than the person who posed for it. The key is care. And despite genealogists’ love for our photos, we often don’t give them the care they need.
For starters, it’s not the passage of time that ages our photos—it’s what they’re stored in. “The containers you use for your photos can cause more of a problem than they solve,” says Sally Jacobs, the Practical Archivist. “Acidic paper [like from cardboard boxes] will leach acids into whatever is in direct contact with it. Keep acidic paper away from your photos whenever possible. Sticky magnetic albums are in even more dire straits because the overlay is often made of an unstable material called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.” 
Photo frames aren’t safe havens, either, says Amanda Baker, an associate product manager and archival hotline expert at Gaylord Brothers. “Ultraviolet radiation [from natural and artificial light] fades pictures dramatically within a year and also can make them brittle.” Photos even can be damaged within a frame: They can stick to the glass or deteriorate from exposure to adhesives or acidic mats.

So where are your most-loved pictures right now? Tucked in boxes with other memorabilia? Hung in frames on the wall? Sandwiched between the pages of old albums? Stored in a cold, dark and musty basement or hot, humid attic? If so, those images of your ancestors are prematurely aging, but don’t lose hope. You can intervene now to rescue and preserve those photos in four simple steps.

1. Fix harmful storage.

The first step to rescuing your photos is to save them from anything sapping their lifespan. Put on a pair of white cotton gloves, then remove pictures from acidic paper environments: cardboard boxes, book pages (especially cheap paperbacks), news clippings and documents. Also remove them from most plastic containers or items. Make note of anything the photographs belong with even as you separate them. You eventually may need to reunite a photo with an associated newspaper obituary or other item; you’ll just do it safely.
If your photos are stuck in an old album, start by copying or scanning them from right in the album. If it’s an old black paper album—and especially if it was carefully laid out with captioning and other photos—Jacobs recommends leaving the photos intact. Just insert interleaving pages (very thin archival tissue) so the picture fronts don’t have direct contact with the opposite pages when the album is closed.
Jacobs carefully removes photos from magnetic albums with a microspatula like the one in her Photo Rescue Kit ($25 at Others use unwaxed dental floss, but Jacobs says she finds string more difficult to control than the microspatula.

Finally, unless framed photos have been matted with archival materials and framed behind UV-protected acrylic or glass, they need to be reframed. Open frames carefully, watching for sharp glass edges, staples or tiny nails. If a frame doesn’t open easily or the photo appears to be stuck to the glass, take it to a professional framer for assistance. After the frame is open, remove photos carefully: Use a knife to slice any tape (instead of tearing it) that connects photos to backing or mats. Again, copy or scan pictures before attempting any action that might damage them. Remove cardboard or chipboard backing and mats that have yellowed, acid-burned edges. Gently remove adhesive from the back of photos if possible. If not, be careful to avoid stacking them.

2. Cull, label and organize.

Now you’re ready to put your pictures in order. First, select those that are really worth saving. “Archivists know better than anyone that you can’t keep everything,” Jacobs says. “Resources are limited. Space is limited.”

Old and rare photos should all be saved. But most of us should cull our more recent photos. “There truly is such a thing as photo clutter, especially in the photos you’ve taken since the 1970s. You owe it to your children to select and share the best ones. The leaner and meaner your collection is, the less money you’ll have to spend to store it properly.”
After you’ve selected the most meaningful photos, label them. Jacobs advises noting names, dates and locations on the backs of prints with an extra soft #1 pencil (available at art supply stores) or a Stabilo All pencil ($3.85 at; both are also included in Jacobs’ Photo Rescue Kit. “Both kinds of marks are easily erased and therefore un-doable,” Jacobs says.
In addition, put the same information on whatever enclosure you use for your photos (see step 4) or in a spreadsheet. Jacobs likes the spreadsheet option because “you can assign a unique ID number to each photograph. This ID will also become the digital file name when you scan it.” Her spreadsheet has columns for date taken, provenance (chain of ownership), names of individuals pictured and location. Write the stories behind the pictures in the spreadsheet or on a caption card made from acid-free, lignin-free paper that you can file with the photo.

Once photos are labeled, organize them. If they were already organized in their previous-but-unsafe box or album, you may just want to return them to that configuration. If you’re rearranging them, Jacobs suggests a chronological order. “If you don’t know the exact date, chances are you can guess at the decade.”
For tips on identifying the decade based on clothing, hairstyles and other clues, see Maureen A. Taylor’s Photo Detective blog at to narrow the time period of your family’s photos.

3. Duplicate the images.

Making print and digital copies of your pictures is the best way to ensure your great-grandchildren will see the faces of their ancestors, but don’t just digitize everything and toss out the originals. “Photo prints, especially black and white ones, will outlast most digital copies,” Jacobs says.
Anyone who has ever had to make do with a copy of a copy of a copy knows that images lose quality with every duplication. Keep the original and make only “first-generation” copies from that one as needed. Certain types of older images and film (such as negatives) are less stable over time or may require particular care. Consult Preserving Your Family Photographs by Maureen A. Taylor (Picture Perfect Press) or Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms and Other Prized Possessions by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar (Simon & Schuster) for detailed descriptions of antique photographic types and how to care for them.
Jacobs advises making digital copies of pictures, too, and archiving them with the same care and savvy you use with the real things. “It is possible to keep digital files long term,” she says, but you need to do it right. When you scan them, she recommends saving the scans as uncompressed TIFF files, not JPG files that lose information every time you change and resave the file. The TIFF file should remain an unchanged digital master. If you want to edit, crop or change the photo, work with a copy. See page 54 for more specifics on scanning photos.
How you care for digital files matters, too. “If you don’t back up your digital photos, you risk losing them forever,” Jacobs says. She uses a “3-2-1 strategy” for digital preservation: three copies, using two different kinds of storage technology, in more than one location. Two popular choices are an external hard drive and online storage on a website such as Picasa or Flickr. Besides backing up your photos, these sites allow for photo sharing and organizing. Combining local storage on an external hard drive with online storage lets you account for nearly all situations (fire, flood, tornado or even a website going out of business) to keep all your digital photos safe.

Remember that technology changes quickly. Your TIFF files on a CD or flash drive may be readable today, but not on the computer you’ll own in 10 years or on the tablet you already own. “Files need to be migrated, checked and updated,” Jacobs says. Watch for new digital storage options to become industry norms, and then update your photos to those formats.

4. Preserve and store.

At this point, you’re ready to store photos safely away. For simple and inexpensive storage, Baker recommends standing up photos, unsleeved but organized, in an archival photo box (available through vendors such as Archival Methods and Hollinger Metal Edge. The box should be acid-free and lignin-free. If you’re going to stack the boxes, get ones with reinforced corners because photos can get heavy. 
Strong, airtight plastic bins—even those made from inert plastics—aren’t a good idea. “Airtight things are not as good as they seem,” explains Baker. “Mold grows easily in anything damp. You want there to be a little bit of airflow.”

If you live in an area prone to flooding, hurricanes or other water dangers, temporary plastic bins during the wet season can be a good solution. But for long-term storage, put photos in something breathable—not sealed plastic.

Read labels closely when shopping for archival supplies. Don’t trust a product just because it says “photo safe” or “archival.” See what it’s made of. “I personally won’t pick up anything unless it tells me what it is [on the label],” Baker says.
Beware of those inexpensive, decorated photo boxes you can buy at craft stores. “Archivists steer away from things that are colored and dyed because it’s difficult to get those completely free of something that will harm your pictures,” Baker says. “Is the red dye in that cute box worth the risk?”
Though it’s more economical to store everyday photos unsleeved, best practice is to place valuable or fragile originals in individual photo sleeves. “The best sleeves are made of archival polyester, which is chemically inert, meaning it doesn’t react with anything, and it doesn’t release gases that will harm your materials,” Baker says. Because polyester is fairly expensive, she adds that more-affordable polypropylene sleeves also are acceptable.
Archival albums are another storage option. These albums are more expensive than typical photo albums, but they can hold flat memorabilia, documents and your written family stories all in one easy-to-display place. Album pages should be made of archival paper: acid-free, lignin-free and preferably buffered to slow acid migration. Page sleeves or protectors should be made of safe plastics. The best albums are wrapped in buckram fabric, which is pricey, but Baker says leather, bonded leather and leatherette covers also are acceptable. Vinyl covers are not.
Keep those boxes or albums of photos in a closet on your main floor that maintains a steady temperature—meaning an area that is heated and/or air conditioned—as your primary storage location. “The places that are comfortable for humans are also generally comfortable for your archival materials,” says Baker. “If it’s clean under your bed, that’s also a reasonable place. Photos do like a colder environment than other documents—but also dry. The emulsion will stick when it gets wet,” Baker cautions.
If you want to frame pictures, experts recommend making high-quality copies to frame and storing the originals. If you must display the original, find a frame that’s acid-free, including the mat and the backer board, and use UV filtering glass or acrylic. Look for these items at online archival suppliers or a custom frame shop. When you’re selecting a spot to display your frame, avoid direct sunlight or beneath a lamp on an end table, since even light bulbs may cause some fading. Display the photo in a place that doesn’t get a lot of light.

These steps won’t reverse signs of aging on photos that are already damaged: UV damage and crumbling from acidity are permanent. But this four-step intervention will slow the effects of time on your pictures. With this kind of loving care, your ancestors’ faces will look great in photos for generations to come.

Supply List

  • archival paper storage boxes
  • archival photo box or album
  • archival polyester photo sleeves
  • archival tissue
  • external hard drive or online digital photo backup service

extra soft No. 1 pencil or Stabilo All pencil
  • microspatula
  • photo frames with UV-filtering acrylic or glass
  • photo scanner
  • white cotton gloves (optional)


* * * 
Contributing editor Sunny Jane Morton writes Family Tree Magazine’s Family Archivist column. Her video classes include At Home With the Family Archivist.
From the January/February 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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