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A friend of mine has some very old photos where the deterioration process seems to have increased in the past few years, and the owner is worried about the preservation of these old memories.

They have been stored inside an album within plastic sleeves. The owner is not aware of the display method prior to that.

I have been informed by the owner that since being in their possession, they seem to be looking worse than when first viewed and seem to be falling apart.

He is looking for the best way to preserve these photos inside an album, but not really sure what would be the best method. I have suggested for the albums as a whole to be stored in vacuum sealed bags for now, but I'm not even sure if that is good!

I am looking for any suggestions or personal experiences from anyone who has had to deal with such photos and what they did to preserve their memories.

13

Others have given advice on digitising which is very worthwhile and I would suggest this should be done as soon as possible. However, assuming that there is value placed on the photograph itself as a historic object not just the image it contains as a historic record then you will want to do your best to also preserve them as well as you are able.

The National Archives (UK) have published a short guide "Caring for your photographs".

To quote the most relevant part:

Environment

  • Photographic materials benefit from a cool, dry, well-ventilated storage environment. Avoid storing photographs in the attic, the basement, or along the outside walls of a building, where environmental conditions are prone to extremes and fluctuations and where condensation may occur.

Storage

  • Keep photographs and negatives in folders or pockets to protect them from dust and light and provide physical support during use. Chemically stable plastic or paper folders or pockets, free of sulphur, acids, and peroxides, are recommended. These storage materials are not readily available but can be ordered from specialist conservation suppliers. Plastics are unsuitable for photographs that have a flaking binder layer or friable surface components, such as the pastel colouring often seen on crayon enlargements.

  • Store film-based negatives (single sheets or strips cut into lengths of 4-6 frames) separately from other photographic materials, as they can produce acidic gases as they age.

  • Keep cased items, such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, in their original cases or frames. Wrap them in acid-free or photographic storage paper to reduce wear and tear on fragile cases.

  • Place individually packed prints, negatives, and cased items in sturdy, acid-free or photographic conservation board boxes for extra protection from light, dust, and environmental fluctuations.

  • Preserve old photograph albums intact, storing them flat, preferably in acid-free or photographic conservation board boxes. They serve a dual purpose of organising groups of images while protecting them from physical and environmental damage, and can be wonderful sources of historic and genealogical information.

  • Check stored boxes of photographs from time to time to make sure that they are free of dust, dirt and insects.

Although they recommend keeping photos in albums, the plastic sleeves may well be an issue. I would be inclined to try and remove them and put them into a new acid-free card based album to preserve the order while removing the plastic.

  • Thanks Neil, this is extremely useful information. Due to historic value, some of these photos require preserving in their original form. – Abdul Quraishi Jan 6 '15 at 19:32
  • @anqphotography the reality which you seem to be hiding from is that no matter how well you store them, these will be gone within a single lifetime. It is simply not possible to preserve them in their original form, your attempt will delay the decline but won't keep them for posterity. I would suggest you do both, digitise before they deteriorate. – JamesRyan Jan 7 '15 at 12:15
  • @JamesRyan - I totally agree - I possibly hadn't made it clear enough that conserving the original as well as possible is something to do as well as scanning not instead of. I've edited the first paragraph to clarify this. – neil Jan 7 '15 at 12:34
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Scan them. Now. Even relatively low end cheap scanners can capture more than the visible detail of a picture. Once you have a good digital representation, make a few backups on as long-lasting media as you can find, and put them in separate places. Give a copy to several relatives dispersed around the globe.

I know this doesn't preserve the original paper version, but it does preserve the pictures and the memories themselves. I understand the actual paper may have some nostalgic value, and the old "authentic" feel is pretty cool, but preserving the actual picture information should be the first priority. Note that none of this prevents you from then still doing the best you can to preserve the original paper. But, that will inevitably degrade over time. Note also that the paper prints are most likely not the originals anyway. Those are probably negatives that are long lost in time.

Aside about old family photos

Another problem with old prints is that there is only one copy. A picture of your great-grandfather, for example, is just as relevant to you as probably a whole load of cousins. The single picture had to be passed down to someone, and you ended up with it somehow. Now with today's technology, the cousins to whom it is just as relevant can all have access to it.

I inherited a bunch of such pictures when my mother passed away a couple of years ago. She did a lot of geneology research and collecting of family information, but it's all on one-off pieces of paper. I see my job to take what she collected and make it accessible to everyone. I have the single copies mostly by chance, but they belong just as much to a large number of other people.

I did some digging and found a web site that is trying to build the big One Tree of Everyone. It's totally free and open. See http://www.wikitree.com. This seems to be to be a good place to upload pictures of relatives to, record and save stories and life histories of, etc.

Another advantage of the one big tree is that after you get far enough adding the little branch you know about, you will be connected to information others have already entered. All of a sudden you are linked to ancestors that lived hundreds of years ago, especially if they lived in a place that kept good records. For example, when I got to my grandfather 6 generations back (turned out to be a state-sponsored pirate during the revolutionary war), I found he was already in the system and I was suddenly connected to ancestors that lives in the 1300s in England. One guy was a personal friend of William the Conquerer and faught with him at Hastings in 1066 and was rewarded with a large chunk of land. Pretty cool.

  • 1
    A local copy on a hard drive and a copy on google drive or another cloud service is both bulletproof and easier than copying it to some long term storage medium. – slicedtoad Jan 6 '15 at 16:58
  • Negatives or slides often last longer than prints and can also be scanned if they are available. – JamesRyan Jan 6 '15 at 17:17
  • @Olin Lathrop - that is great information. I will share it – Abdul Quraishi Jan 6 '15 at 17:21
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Unless you're using album sleeves manufactured to being archival, they could be part of the problem, outgassing chemicals that deteriorate the images.

Also, unless the images were printed on archival-quality paper, the photos could be damaging themselves because many papers and processing techniques can leave the final result acidic, which can break them down over time.

So the best answer here is digital scanning AND making sure those scans are backed up in a safe and disaster-resistant way (spare copies offsite, etc...)

2

Vacuum-sealed won't help much - it will just apply a lot of excess pressure on what is probably already brittle. You are probably thinking about inert gas filled, which will stop any oxidation reactions. Argon and nitrogen are the most common gases to use here.

Old albums are not a good way to store anything. The paper and adhesives are rarely archival quality and range from not helping to actively damaging.

Take one print that you can sacrifice and put it in a tray of water overnight. If it softens up (rather than dissolving into mush) then you have your recovery method. It won't make the pictures better, but it will make them handleable long enough to get them onto a flatbed scanner.

  • Thanks - I will get them out of the vacuum bag. The reason why the owner wants the originals preserved is because they have hand written messages both front and back which they would like to keep. – Abdul Quraishi Jan 6 '15 at 12:48
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    @anqphotography, they can be scanned from both sides to preserve this. I know having photos on paper is valued memory, but think about scanning because whatever measures you get the originals will get worst and worst :( – Romeo Ninov Jan 6 '15 at 12:59
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    @RomeoNinov - thanks Romeo - your right about the scan. to me that is also the best solution, but as you mention, it is the valued memory and the nostalgia that the owner is trying to preserve. – Abdul Quraishi Jan 6 '15 at 17:26

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