Photo Preservation

How many of you have stacks of photographs in shoe boxes, tucked away in a closet? You probably run across them occasionally and think, “I have to put those in an album!” Well, you’re right.

If you have photos stored in shoe boxes, or any other box made of regular cardboard, you need to move them. As discussed in previous newsletters, regular cardboard and other wood products are usually highly acidic. When something contains a lot of acid, it is destructive to anything in contact with it. Acid makes things yellow, brittle, faded, and eventually ruined.

So how do you avoid acidic products? Use archival materials. Now, you don’t have to buy something from a museum supplier in order for it to be archival, but you do need to check its “ingredients.” Look for wood-based products that are acid-free. If the package doesn’t state that a product is acid-free, you can use a pH testing pen to test it. The pen’s ink will indicate if something is safe to use or not. Another ingredient to check is the plastic that may be in contact with your photographs. The three “good” plastics to look for are polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene. Do not use polyvinyl-chloride (commonly known as PVC or vinyl)! That is one of the worst plastics because it emits hydrochloric acid fumes as it ages. It is often found in things that are intended to protect your photographs or documents, such as page protectors and photo albums. When you are buying these items, note what they are made of. If the package doesn’t state the plastic that is used, shop around until you can find something that you know has the proper type of plastic.

When you use photo albums, stay away from “magnetic photo albums! Most often the cardboard used in them is highly acidic, and the plastic is PVC. And, to top it off, the pages have an adhesive on them that keeps the photographs in the page – that’s why the photos stay in. When you lift up the plastic sheet to put your pictures in, some of the adhesive sticks to the plastic and then gets deposited on the front of your photo. This will definitely ruin your pictures. Another problem that occurs with these albums is that usually one of two things will happen: either the adhesive works so well that your photographs will get stuck to the pages and you will not be able to remove them without tearing them; or the adhesive will dry out and all the photos will fall out whenever you open up the album. The remedy for this? Throw out your magnetic albums and get something better.

There are two types of albums that I would recommend. One is the kind that has plastic sheets with pockets – provided that the plastic is either polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene. A person asked me about something called “poly-vi.” I would assume that this is polyvinyl-chloride and should be avoided. The other kind of photo album I would recommend is one with acid-free paper pages, and acid-free photo corners. Do not paste your photos in an album! Most pastes are acidic, and you cannot get your pictures out without ruining either them or the photo album. Please stay away from rubber cement. Some photo album salespeople will sell it with their albums, but do not use it. It is horrible for your photographs.

There is one other thing to consider when you are putting your photos in an album – think twice before cutting out the background of pictures like some salespeople advocate. Years down the road, someone will be very interested in the house or the other people or whatever else is in the background.

If you are unable to put your recently developed photographs in a quality album, leave them in the envelopes from the printer. I have tested these envelopes and have found them to be pretty much acid-free, so they are a decent place to store your photographs until you are able to put them in a good album. Remember to label them right away too!

If you follow these tips, they will help to keep your photos around for many years to come.

By Julie Tomala
Copyright 1997, Morrison County Historical Society

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