How To Save Family Photos From Magnetic Photo Albums

By Denise May Levenick Premium


What should I do with my old magnetic photo albums? Most of the pictures are from the 1970s, and now have an orange cast. They’re either falling out of the books or stuck tight to the pages. I’ve heard freezing might loosen the glue. Is that safe to try?


Almost every family has at least one old “magnetic” album, usually filled with deteriorating color prints. The combination of acidic materials, adhesives and plastic work together to damage whatever was placed between backing and plastic cover. Prints changed hue; newspapers grew brittle. The items families meant to preserve deteriorated faster than if they’d been housed in a simple paper enclosure. 

These albums weren’t really magnetic. Instead, regular acidic paperboard was coated with a grid of sticky wax. Photos and paper stayed put when pressed onto the wax lines and covered with a thin plastic overlay. Unfortunately, none of these materials was manufactured for long-term preservation of the contents. 

Today, archival-quality albums feature acid-free, lignin-free paper and only plastics that have passed the Photographic Activity Test <>. This laboratory test assures consumers that the plastic will not harm photos placed inside. Look for plastics made of polypropylene labeled “archival.” 

Archivists recommend quick action when it comes to old magnetic photo albums. First, preserve the album contents and arrangement by photographing or scanning each page at 600 dpi resolution in full color. This also saves any captions or notes and creates a backup in case any photos can’t be saved. Peel back the plastic, if you can. To fit the pages on your scanner, you can carefully cut the pages from the binding using a utility knife. (The album itself is so harmful there’s no need to preserve it.) 

Next, remove photos a page at a time, maintaining the original order. Try these tricks if photos are stuck to the page: 

  • Starting at a corner, gently hold the photo with one hand and work the microspatula blade between the page and photo. Make your way around the edges of the photo, working toward the center.
  • Slide regular dental floss under the photo with a gentle back-and-forth sawing motion to cut through the wax.
  • Copy any caption onto the back of the photo if it’s is relatively clean, using a soft No. 2 lead pencil or an archival pen. Use a light touch to avoid indentations. Or you can place the photos in an archival paper or plastic sleeve and write the caption on the outside of the enclosure. If you want to reassemble the album, choose archival materials (see a list of suppliers at <>) and mount photos with corners or photo-safe sleeves, rather than adhesive. 

What is a Microspatula? 

This thin, flexible tool isn’t for flipping tiny pancakes. The long, narrow blade is an archivist’s best friend for handling old photos and fragile paper: It aids in lifting photos from albums without digging your fingers underneath the edge, slipping pictures out of photo corners, turning back bent pages, removing staples and extracting photos stuck to the pages of magnetic albums. Microspatulas are available from archival suppliers such as Gaylord Archival <>.

See how a microspatula can be used: 


Ze #microspatula is my favourite tool

A video posted by Handmade Books ?? (@mulemotherbooks) on Jun 12, 2015 at 7:17am PDT



     A version of this article appears in the October/November 2016 issue of Family Tree Magazine.  

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