Preserving family photos

By Nancy Battick

It’s a new year. Perhaps it’s time for a new project. If you’re like most of us your photo collection is probably housed in albums, scrapbooks, paperboard boxes or even plastic bags. Sometimes just the thought of dealing with them is overwhelming, especially if you’re the one who inherited everyone’s photos.

Today I’m going to offer a column on scrapbooks and old albums and what you can do to protect the images in them.

Almost everyone I knew in school had a scrapbook of some sort. In it we pasted photos, newspaper clippings, programs, letters, magazine photos of favorite movie or television stars, and other memorabilia. 

Acid, damp and rodents are among the worst enemies your photos and documents have. Acid is released from products made from wood pulp such as cardboard, paperboard and even from many old frames, which used wood boards as backing. Think of your newspaper. Those from the 1700s are often in like-new condition while clippings from 10 years ago are brown and crumbling. That’s acid at work and it can destroy your photos and documents.

If your album or scrapbook holds photos that are starting to fade, turn brown, stiffen or curl at the corners that’s the result of exposure to acid. If they’re held in place by photo corners, remove them carefully always after taking a good digital image of the page and the order of the photos and any captions. If it’s a scrapbook the photos are probably glued in — something you should never do. In many cases you’ll have to take a digital image or scan of the page and a closeup of each photo because it will be impossible to remove them after all these years. You can slow the acid’s effects by layering acid-free paper between the pages, but acid will still be eating at the backs so make good copies of what you treasure now.

If they are glued in and you can’t get them out of the old scrapbook/album, then recreate your album with printed copies of your new digital images. You can also choose to create a digital album if you’d rather. 

To store, label each album. Keep them out of damp, unheated attics or sheds, away from ravenous rodents who tear up paper for nests and always avoid direct light. I suggest working on one album at a time. 

You can purchase acid-free albums, paper, photo corners and pens. When you buy acid-free items be sure they’re from a reliable company and that items are labeled “acid free, archivally safe.” Beware of lookalike items at cheap prices. Acid free materials will cost more but it’s worth it. You’re preserving your family and your own history. 

If the technical skills worry you, it’s time to draft a member of the family or tech-savvy friend to help you with the photography and creation of digital albums. Be sure everything is backed up. As you work enjoy the memories.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UMaine and lives in Dover-Foxcroft with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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