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Friday, 15 January 2021

Care, Handling & Storage of Old Photographs

Figure 1Nellie Somers

My blog is to inspire you to take the time this holiday season to preserve your family’s memories, and create a visual family history.

Family photographs are some the few things in life that are truly irreplaceable as they represent decades of history and memories.

Preserving your precious photos could be the single most important thing you do for your children and for generations to come.

Here are some helpful guidelines to preserve your family photos


Wash your hands before handling photographs, do not apply hand lotions as the oils and salts will cause permanent stains on the photograph, contribute to fading and attract pests.

Prepare a clean and spacious work surface before starting, preferably a table and not on the carpet or floor.

Handle photographs by their edges to avoid leaving fingerprints. Place your photograph image/emulsion side up to prevent scratches.

Support photographs carefully with both hands or, especially for larger and fragile photographs, slide a piece of paper or card underneath to act as a carrier.

If necessary, handle photographs and negatives by using nitrile gloves and not cotton gloves as the fibres stick on to the item.

When wearing your gloves remember to not touch your face or other parts of the body as this will transfer oils and perspiration from your skin onto the gloves, and then onto your photograph.

For your personal safety gloves also protects you against skin irritations and allergic reactions when handling photographs.

Figure 2 Images illustrate the do's & don'ts when handling photographs

Documenting old photos

Use a soft HB lead pencil to label the back of the photo, with important information such as names, dates, brief description of the place and event.

Tip: Scan and print any original writing on an old photo and keep that attached to any copies you make. This lets you preserve old handwriting, which may come in handy when trying to identify the author of an old letter or diary.

Make your notes on paper laid on the work surface, not on top of your photograph.

Sticky notes should not be used on your photographs. They can lift the emulsion, will remove paper fibres, and leave a residue, which will yellow over time and stain your photograph.



Start a family blog to share your photos and gather more information instead, of passing them around at family gatherings and events. This will reduce the handling and avoid damage and loss.


Environmental Storage

Photographic materials benefit from a cool, dry, well-ventilated storage environment.

Avoid storing photographs in the attic, the basement, or along the outer sidewalls of a building, where environmental conditions are prone to extreme fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity and where condensation may occur.

Try and, identify a space in the core section of the house where the environment is more stable and away from damp walls and more importantly away from children and mischievous pets that can get to them.

Good housekeeping helps protect your treasures. Check regularly for signs of rodents, silverfish, borer and other pests.


Storage materials

You can store photos in boxes, folders, albums, and sleeves, made out of either paper or ‘plastic’. Use acid free quality materials to store photographs such as Mylar, polypropylene or polyethylene.

Avoid anything made out of PVC (a low-quality plastic) or anything that puts the photograph in direct contact with an adhesive, like sticky tape or glue.

If storing your old photos in a box, make sure the box is big enough so that your photos can be stored flat or upright with no creasing or bending. If storing your photos upright, use acid free spacer boards to prevent your photos from bending.

Contact a conservator if you cannot safely solve a problem with correct storage and handling or discover mould or pest infested collection.


Photo albums

If your photographs are already in an album, and have been, carefully laid out with captioning it is best to leave them this way. Removing the photographs may cause more damage. The original sequence/story line of the photographs may also be lost.

If your photos are stuck in an old album. The best practice is to insert interleaving acid free thin archival tissue pages so that the picture fronts do not have direct contact with the opposite pages when the album is closed.

Papers, which are very opaque white and with a very smooth almost shiny surface are not suitable for interleaving. These papers are called ‘coated’ papers, and have a finely ground mineral coating. When they are wet, they become very sticky.

Mount old family photos on acid-free paper album pages using acid-free mounting corners or place your photos in stable plastic pockets or sleeves, such as products made of polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene.

Do not use tape or glue to keep them in place as this can lead to staining and paper damage.

Avoid using magnetic or self-adhesive albums (albums that have sticky cardboard pages and plastic covers that cling to the photos). Adhesive on the pages will damage the photographs. It can also be difficult to remove the photographs once they are stuck to the magnetic photo pages.



Avoid laminating unique or valuable photographs and original certificates, as this process is irreversible. Heat-seal lamination cannot be undone because the heat melts adhesive into the item. Lamination is a process appropriate only for materials with a short-term value— certainly not for your valued collection materials. Rather use the method of encapsulation to protect damaged or frail single photographs.



Convert print photos to digital for extra precaution

Once you have taken the steps to preserve your family photograph collection, use a smartphone as a simple and easy option to convert a selection of your print photos to digital. For extra precaution download on to a memory stick or external USB drive to preserve the memories.

Make this your memorable year

Remember that preventing damage is the key to preserving your photos, start by gathering and sorting your collection remove the dust using a soft bristle brush or a low suction Hepa vacuum cleaner isolate pest-infested items, remove staples, rubber bands, and make this Covid 19 year a memorable one.

For further reading

Visit the following websites /youTube videos to learn more about the techniques for caring and preserving family keepsakes and the different types of photographs.



Thank you

Nellie Somers  somers@ukzn.ac.za Preservation Librarian UKZN Special Collections

Stay home. Stay safe during the corona virus 19 lockdown. December 2020

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