Caring for Family Photos

She glances at the photo, and the pilot light of memory flickers in her eyes.
~ Frank Deford

Remember that old story about the cobbler’s son having no shoes? I’m often reminded of it when I open the door to the spare closet in my office. You know the one. Everybody has one. If you’re lucky, it’s a drawer or two. If you’re like me, a shelving unit in a closet. I’ve seen the show “Hoarders” and get that there are places far, far worse than my closet. But still. It’s full of things “to be done” –like organizing and caring for my family’s photographs– when that magical moment of having more time comes around.

I mean seriously. I’m an archivist. I spend my days organizing and taking care of other people’s stuff. Good stuff, mind you. Pictures, letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and such. But stuff! So trust me when I say I know how daunting the task of organizing and caring for a collection of family photos and documents can be. Even though I do that as my job, my stack of stuff at home is significant. And don’t even get me started on my digital photo files. *shudder*

What I’ve told myself this week is that trying to do it all as one project is just too much. I’d never even get started if that were the case. The key is to do just that — start. Make a dent, a beginning. Sort, label, take care of ones that are at risk. So I have dutifully purchased some storage boxes and photo sleeves and have begun the long process of organizing and caring for my family photos.

For those of you who might be contemplating the same task, here are a few important tips and tricks from the archives to keep in mind as you tackle the very important task of caring for your family photograph collection:

  • Environment is key.  Keeping those family photographs in a protective environment will go a very long way in helping to preserve them for generations to come.   Oftentimes they get squirreled away in basements or attics, which do not provide a great environment for long-term storage.  Make sure they are stored somewhere that is cool and dry.  Think 65 to 70 degrees, with a humidity as close to 40 percent year-round as possible.  Even worse than a little more heat or humidity are the constant fluctuations.  The back-and-forth, up-and-down changes are very hard on photographs.  Also, try to keep them away from mice and other animals, including pesky insects, which can nibble away the images you are trying to preserve.   And sunlight is a definite no-no!  If you want a picture on the wall, it’s best to get a digital copy and frame that, keeping the original tucked safely away.
  • Handling is critical.  You have probably seen shows like History Detectives or visited an archives or historical society where they use white gloves.  There’s a reason for that!  Fingerprints and the oils they leave behind damage the image of the photograph.  Use care when handling and try to do so by the edges with clean or gloved hands.  Even better, protect the photos by using photo sleeves.  Watch out for things labeled “Archival” or “Archivally safe” that are available for sale, though, as they may not always be the best for long-term storage, despite their labels.  Although more expensive, photo enclosures that have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) are available from archival supply stores like Hollinger, University Products, Light Impressions, and Gaylord (given in no particular order).  But do try to avoid using anything sticky — those awful old magnetic albums, rubber cement, tape, and the like.
  • Labeling is helpful.  If you know any information about the photograph, get it written down!  Carefully pencil the information on the back of the photo, or, even better, label the sleeve that’s protecting it or use a separate piece of acid-free paper.  Names, places, events, dates, or any other pertinent information will be a blessing to those who look at your photographs on down the road.

For more information about caring for your family photographs, please see the information available at the Library of Congress. It’s a terrific resource, with some excellent detailed advice. If you’d like to read more about how archives care for photographic collections, I highly recommend the following two books: Photographs: Archival Care and Management by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, and Bertrand Lavédrine’s A Guide to the Preventative Conservation of Photographic Collections.

And if your mountain of photographs, digital or physical, is threatening to topple over and bury you? Make sure to check out the excellent blog posts over at ArchivesInfo, and especially the one on “Culling Family Photographs.” It has some great advice about how to thin the stack of photographs as part of the process of organizing and caring for your family photos.

So dig in and make a start. You might even find it kind of fun, hopefully. And be sure to share your stories and progress here as you go along. Just think of how happy you’re going to make someone on down the road who can enjoy your pictures all the more because of all your hard work!



Filed under Archives, History

4 responses to “Caring for Family Photos

  1. My family photos are in cardboard boxes in the master bedroom closet. Not quite archival, but nothing has been damaged either. My next big project is to scan them, label them & get them into protective sleeves. I know the scanning causes damage also, but they are also preserved for a much longer time.

    My funniest archival story? Several years ago, my father sent me an old Girl Scout purse – all plastic from the mid-1960’s. Inside were a number of photos that I apparently took of my cousins and other family members. I scanned those promptly and put them into an archival plastic bin. I was amazed at what good shape they were in nearly 40 years later, although being black & white helped a lot.


  2. How fun! I’m amazed sometimes when I pull a stack of photos out of some old envelope or box that looks awful but the photos are in pretty good shape.

  3. Lynda, what is the “official party line” on identifying the newer color prints (on the slick paper that won’t take pencil)? Individually sleeving every image is not always practical for everyone. I thought the Kaiser-Schreiber “photo marking pens” would be better than pen or a sharpie, but even now looking at the description they won’t come right out and tell you it’s “okay” to write directly on a photo with them. I tend to think that it’s better to identify the photo, in small print on the bottom of the back (just in case the pen does something weird later on); better than no identification at all. Do you know what the official stance is on that? I don’t want to put you on the spot and say “what would you do?” 🙂

    • That’s always a hard call for sure! I’ve seen some places around use a blue-wax pencil, which seems to do much better on the slick paper than regular paper, but to me, it is really hard to read, especially as it ages. I agree that any identification is better than none, so if it works and it’s the best option, then getting the info on the back is the way to go. That’s definitely not “best practice” but it’s reality….. In lieu of sleeving them all and trying not to write on them, about the only other option I’ve seen done is to create a paper sleeve and put the information on the paper. While it protects the photo, I think it has some drawbacks, too – namely adding bulk to whatever you’re storing them in and still has the chance of getting the information separated from the photo too easily. My latest habit on my personal photos –definitely not at work!– is to use one of the newer fine-point Sharpies. They’re about the size of a mechanical pencil lead, so their print is very small. I can get the info on the back of the photo in an unobtrusive corner and they dry quickly, preventing marking on other photos if you’re stacking as you go!

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