Taking Care of Your Family Photographs

Wills, birth certificates, pension records, and other family-history documents provide much valuable information, but it is photographs that immediately make the connection with our ancestors and their lives. Seeing a daguerreotype of your great-great-grandmother, curls pulled back from her head, black net gloves on her hands, full sleeves and skirt heavily embroidered, conveys a sense of that person in just a glance.

To make your photographs meaningful, adequate identification is essential. People often neglect to identify the people or the place or the occasion recorded in each image, and they are forgotten. Record identifications on reverse in pencil, along the edge of photographs, or better, write on archival quality foil-backed labels and affix to the back of the photograph. Such labels are particularly good for photographic paper that doesn’t take ink well. Take care not to let the wet ink get on other photographs, and don’t use markers, as they bleed through to the front of the image.

Controlling temperature and relative humidity plays an important part in preserving your photographs. The ideal temperature for photographs is below 70° F; humidity should be kept between 30% and 50%. High humidity can lead to fading, discoloration, and silvering, as well as mold growth and insect infestations. Extremely low humidity can lead to photographs becoming brittle or the emulsion flaking off. The worst conditions for storing your photographs would be an area with wild fluctuations of temperature and humidity, which can cause the paper or board that the photograph is mounted on to deteriorate. Although few individuals have the kind of climate controlled situation that the NHA Research Library can offer, photographs can at least be moved from attics and basements into an interior room of the house.

Another way of preserving your photographs is to control light levels. It’s best not to display your valuable photographs, but rather to have a copy made to display and keep the original stored safely. Ultraviolet light damages photographs, causing fading and yellowing and can make them brittle. This damage is cumulative and irreversible, so it is important to protect your images from light.

Much of the damage that photographs sustain comes from handling them. Natural oils can cause chemical damage to an image; tears and abrasions usually happen while handling photographic collections. When handling photographs, be careful not to touch the emulsion. In the NHA Research Library, we wear white cotton gloves when handling photographs.

Finally, create a good photographic storage system that will provide support for your photograph and protect it from the environment. First, separate photographs from other materials that might damage them, such as newspaper clippings (these are highly acidic and will damage and stain surrounding items), rubber bands, tape, and paper clips. Then store each item in an archival-quality storage sleeve. Don’t use glassine envelopes, because glassine is hydroscopic, that is it absorbs water from the surrounding atmosphere. Opaque storage supplies, which block light, are good because you can write on the envelope. However, taking them in and out of the envelopes can be abrasive. Avoid scrapbooks with adhesive or magnetic pages; the plastic is usually not archival quality, and that sticky stuff never comes off. A wide range of good quality storage supplies is available in many office supply stores or from online sources of archival supplies (a search on the term “archival supplies” brings up many sources).

I recommend organizing family photographs using plastic enclosures of polyester (Mylar), polypropylene, or polyethylene. These are available in many sizes and formats, including sleeves that fit into three ring binders. After storing your photographs in a sleeve, place them in an archival quality binder or box. Don’t forget to label the box or binder as being family photographs, too.

With some care, your family photographs will continue to enrich your and your children’s lives for many years to come.

Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004, by Georgen Charnes.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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