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Many of us have boxes of old family pictures or photo albums stored in the attic or in closets or corners throughout the house. Some of us may even have antique pictures of ancestors taken long ago. Will those photos still be in good condition a hundred years from now?

Museums go to great lengths to preserve the archival photos in their possession. They often have a cool, humidity-controlled room built especially for long-term storage. Every necessary precaution is taken to ensure that these photos last for years to come.

It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to go to similar lengths to safely store their heirloom family photos. But we can take a few simple precautions to make sure our family photos, old and new, will be around for our grandchildren’s children to enjoy.

Handle with Care

Always take care when handling photographs. Oil or dirt from your fingers can cause stains or spots. To minimize the chance of damaging photos, always wash your hands prior to handling. If possible, wear cotton gloves when holding old or delicate photos. Never touch the image itself—hold all photos by the edges and support large-sized photos from underneath. Antique, fragile photos should be touched as little and as gently as possible. Experts recommend laying them on a matt board and handling the board instead of the photo.

Paper or Plastic

Any paper or plastic that comes in contact with your photos should pass the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). These materials have been proven safe to use with photos—they will not cause deterioration or damage. When purchasing photo albums, paper, plastic sleeves or envelopes for archival photo storage, the U.S. National Archives suggests reading the packaging to make sure the material meets the ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test standard. If you see this code written on the label, you know you’re purchasing materials that are archival and safe to use with all photos.

Use only uncoated, pure polyethylene, polypropylene, or polyester plastic for photo storage. Beware of strong-smelling vinyl (PVC) plastic, with that “new car” smell. It’s not safe for photo storage, and the images on your photos can transfer onto it after some time.

Glue

There are many photo safe glues you can use for securing photos to archival paper, but most experts recommend avoiding using glue with photos altogether, mainly because many glues are either unsafe, lose their adhesiveness over time, or remain stubbornly steadfast, making it’s impossible to remove photos later. According to the National Archives, always avoid “synthetic glue (white glue), rubber cement, pressure-sensitive tapes and films, staples, or hot glue gun adhesives.” These methods can damage or discolor your photos. Also avoid self-stick (magnetic) photo albums because they use an unsafe adhesive to secure photos.

It’s best to store your photos in photo-safe plastic sleeves or use photo corners to fasten them to archival paper. Use photo corners that are made from photo-safe material, including the small amount of adhesive used on the back. The nice thing about using photo corners is that photos are easily removed, if desired. And, if for some reason the photo corners start to discolor your photos, only a small corner of the image will be affected.

Old Photo Albums

senior-hands-looking-through-old-photo-album-[400x600]Many of us have shelves of old photo albums from decades ago that are made of self-stick pages or unsafe paper or plastic. Don’t be too quick to remove the photos. Sometimes removing photos can damage them even more than leaving them in the original album. Prying them out of an old album could tear them or peel off their backing. If you must remove photos, very gently use a thin dull knife to separate them from the paper.

Unfortunately, when you dismantle old photo albums, you may be able to preserve the photos, but you lose the original handwritten descriptions and personal touches from the person who created the album years ago. Those mementos are priceless! Before tearing apart an old album, consider scanning the pages to save a digital version of the original format. And wherever you decide to store the photos afterwards, make sure they include all the descriptions and labels as noted in the original album.

Storage

Photos and albums should be stored in a dry, cool location in your home. Your basement may be cooler than the rest of the house, but it can be a damp, dangerous place to store photos. Often, an interior closet is the best place because it maintains a consistent temperature year round.

Keep your photos away from sunlight or strong artificial light. It’s nice to have antique photos hanging on the walls of your home, but that is not the best way to preserve them. They could fade because of exposure to light. If you want to display an old family photo, make a copy to hang on the wall and store the original in a safe location.

Prepare for natural disasters or other unforeseen events by storing negatives, back-up digital files, photocopies, etc. in another location, such as at a relative’s house or in a safe deposit box.

Restoration

If you find old family photos that are extremely dirty, damaged, rolled, cracked, peeling, etc., be very careful in trying to clean or restore them. It’s easy to do more damage in your attempts, so it may not be worth the risk. There comes a time when it’s necessary to consult an expert. The Cornell University Library Department of Preservation and Conservation says that if your photos have any of the following conditions, it’s best to turn to a conservator (a professional trained in photo preservation) for help, instead of trying to do the work on your own:

  • In the event of a disaster.
  • If negatives show signs of rapid deterioration (stains, odors or wrinkles).
  • If photographs exhibit active mold growth, flaking emulsions, or staining from pressure sensitive tape.
  • If photographs are tightly rolled, curled or folded.
  • If photographs have severe tears, cracks or broken or brittle mounts.
  • If a photograph is adhered to its enclosure or to the glazing in a frame.

Antique photos of your ancestors are a precious glimpse into your family history. Imagine someone a hundred years from now feeling the same way about your current family photos. Handle and store those photos with care!