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Preserving A Slice Of History: Storing Your Photos Safely

old photos

Even if you aren’t fully off the grid, preparing for tough times means you want to protect your treasures—things like family photographs. Although many of us store photos on the computer, in the case that your computer crashes or is destroyed, you want to have physical backups. You may also have an arsenal of old photographs somewhere that you need to restore. Original photos don’t last forever, but with the right care, they can last for a very long time. Whether your photo collection is a few old Polaroids or entire scrapbooks full of ancient black-and-whites, acting early can allow you to enjoy your photo collection for much longer and even pass it on to the next generation.

Exercise Caution Handling Your Photos

It may sound obvious, but remember that old photos are delicate. One of the greatest threats to your photos is acid, and unfortunately, it’s just about everywhere. From the oils in your hands to the ink in the scrapbook paper, you have to be especially wary. Handle photos as little as possible with your bare hands, and if you must, try to touch only the edges. When buying supplies such as albums, scrapbook paper, and photo paper, check the labels to make sure it is all acid free or archive safe.

Before you even pick up your photos to examine the damage, look at the albums or pages where they are stored and search for telltale damage. Many albums accrue damage over time in storage that can affect the photos within if you do not handle the album with care.

Albums that stay in storage for long periods can experience mold damage or water damage, while albums that you remove from the shelf frequently for whatever reason often have damage around the corners and spine. If your album is slightly damaged without any mold or water damage, then you can proceed normally with a bit of extra caution. However, if you see mold, you need to work carefully to prevent spreading spores to the photo paper. If you see water damage, the pages might be stuck together, or the photos may be stuck to the pages. Finally, if the entire album is in rough shape and in danger of falling apart, work one page at a time to slowly remove photos individually and prevent any tearing damage.

Recognize Paper Blocking and Treat It Carefully

One of the biggest issues with scrapbook damage is blocking, which occurs when excess moisture causes two paper surfaces to stick together and bind semi-permanently or permanently. This problem applies to every type of paper, including photo paper and scrapbook pages. It is a serious problem because it can cause permanent damage or even destruction of heirloom photos.

If the moisture causes a semi-permanent bind, then you may be able to salvage the photos by slowly working the surfaces apart. Use a flat, dull chisel to separate the two sheets and apply moisture where necessary to cause the fibers to withdraw from each other again. You may end up with damage, but it probably won’t be the type of severe damage that completely destroys a photo. If there are small holes or tears left over from the bind, use an acid-free laminate to seal the surfaces and prevent further tearing.

Blocking that is permanent usually occurs after a spill or submersion when the paper is not adequately dried out before closing the scrapbook or replacing the photos. This type of damage is not fixable, and you may have to throw away the photos. Often, the photo on top will be salvageable, but separating the bottom photo will be impossible because more of the surface is affected by blocking. The best protection against this is preventing water damage. Keep your photos where they will not be subject to spills or excess moisture.

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Address Mold and Water Damage Early

Mold is relatively easy to recognize, and when you do note it, you can use a scraper to gently remove the mold from the surface of the photo. Once you have done this, you should seal the photo with a paper-safe laminate spray, which will prevent any remaining spores from receiving sunlight or oxygen. The spores will die and fail to reproduce, leaving your photo relatively intact aside from any stains left over from the initial contamination.

As for water damage, your recourse depends on whether you noticed the damage before the photo paper dried. If the photographs are still wet, remove them from their scrapbook pages and lay them flat in a warm place to dry. Do not leave them in the sun, as this will bleach the ink and potentially destroy the photos. Let them dry slowly, and when they are finished drying, gently press out any wrinkles or creases left from the drying process.

If the photos are dry by the time you find the damage, then there may be no way to reduce the damage. Again, blocking is a consequence of severe water damage that is often not practical to fix. Take steps to separate the photos without using too much force and assess the damage once you separate the photos, if possible. Prevent this type of damage by storing your photos in a place with low humidity, low heat, and relative darkness if possible. A cool, dry place will discourage both moisture and mold, keeping your photos intact for as long as possible.

Avoid Albums That Will Damage Your Photos

Many people make the mistake of storing their photos in an album that is inherently dangerous to the photo paper, which requires acid-free storage. A common offender is magnetic albums, which are highly acidic on all surfaces—the cardboard that gives the album its structural integrity, the adhesive pages themselves, and the plastic page covers. Of course, these albums are not actually magnetic, but the combination of constant exposure to adhesive and the acidity of the pages cause photographs to fade over time. Worse yet, the photos might stick to the back of the page when you try to remove them, causing tearing when you want to transfer the photos to a new album.

Keep your photos in an acid-free album for storage, preferably with corner holders instead of adhesives or plastic to hold them into the pages. Alternatively, if the photos don’t need to be displayed in a book format, use plastic PVC-free sleeves from a photo supply store and file them flat in manila folders. At all costs, avoid tape and ink. Do not tape your photos into the album, and avoid writing directly on the photos with a pen unless it is labeled scrapbook-safe, which means non-acidic ink.

If you’re restoring photos that were already in an offending album, remove them as slowly as possible to reduce the damage from the adhesive and prevent tearing. Assess the damage and proceed accordingly.

Consider Digital Reproductions and Store Your Photos Wisely

After you have gone through the trouble to restore your photos and save them from poor conditions, you should consider making copies. You can print a brand new copy of your photograph, possibly with a higher resolution than the first. A well-restored image can go from an 8-by-10 with faded sepia color to a full-color portrait ready to hang on the wall. All you need is a scanner that supports high resolution scanning and a computer that can let you view the results. With some glossy photo paper and a quality printer, you can reprint your entire photo album and preserve the new photos in better quality than the first.

As mentioned earlier, if you are not hanging photos for display, it is best to keep them in a cool, dark location with as little humidity as possible. That means that even if you are in the middle of a move, putting a box of photos in a rented storage locker may not be the best choice, as it will lack necessary temperature controls.

I have also learned from personal experience that if you live in an area with pest problems (especially mice), it is best to store photos in a plastic container that can be sealed well. Mice and certain insects love to use paper to make nests, and your photos will make a perfect target if they aren’t sealed up well.

Even when times are tough, you will want to have photos of those special moments—weddings, new babies, and graduations. Take steps to ensure that those treasures are stored carefully.

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