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Articles > The Importance of Photo Preservation

-- Now and For the Future
2 Jan 2013

1. Maintain a Suitable Environment

A suitable environment for photos is cool, dark, and dry, with an average temperate of 65 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity in the range of 30 to 40 percent. Basements and attics are often not temperature controlled, and environmental changes can cause the emulsion to buckle and crack, the colors to fade or shift, and the likelihood of mildew to increase. Basements tend to flood and water damage can literally destroy an old photo. Upstairs, avoid exposure to direct sunlight. Many important images from the early part of the last century have been lost to fading from exposure to direct sunlight.

2. Don’t Use Tape

If a photograph tears, don’t use tape to fix it. Instead, leave the tear un-mended and place the photo in a clear polyethylene envelope to prevent further damage.

3. Put Down the Pen

Writing on the backs of photographs is a good way to identify family members, locations, the date, etc., but do so only in the margin and only with a No. 2 pencil. Never use an ink pen. Be careful not to push too hard when writing. Mechanical pencils usually work best.

4. Choose the Right Album

If you want to have easy access to your photos by keeping them in an album, first, avoid albums that use adhesives to keep the pictures in place. Look instead for an album that holds photos on a polyethylene page. Another method is to store photos in acid-free paper boxes with acid-free paper dividers.

5. Be Careful About Cleaning

Do not attempt to clean photos, as images are produced by many different techniques, some of which require professional cleaning. Fortunately, most “dirt” that appears on photographs is not threatening to the survival of an image. When in doubt, consult a professional conservator.

6. Don’t Put Really Old Photos On Display

Original 19th and early 20th century photos should be properly stored. If you want to display them, scan them and make reproductions to show. Keep the originals in a fireproof safe.

7. Don’t Wait for Future Generations

Start the identification process now. Gently write down everything you know on the backs of your photos, such as people, places, events, and dates. A large number of the precious images in the society’s collection have no information on them. If we can text, tweet, email, and post new photos all over the internet, we ought to be able to caption the historic family photos albums, before we forget who was sitting next to Uncle Joe. Get to it!

Excerpted from The Lumber Shover, 12/2012, Historical Society of the Tonawandas. ©