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Preserving Your Favorite Family Photos

By Jeanne Niccolls, Collections Manager

What’s the best way to take care of your cherished family photo-graphs, old and new? The answer lies in understanding what can cause them damage and how to avoid those conditions.

In most family photographs the image is captured in a light-sensitive substance that rests in a binder layer on top of a primary paper support. Exposure to bright light, high heat, high humidity and acidic materials will cause them to fade and deteriorate; light-sensitive color photographs are especially prone to fading. So protect them from exposure to high levels of visible and ultra-violet light by displaying them away from direct sunlight.

Handle your photographs with care — with clean hands and by the edges. Inspect them for pests. Display and store photographs, photo albums and negatives in rooms where both the temperature and humid-ity are controlled and fairly stable, not in a hot attic or damp basement. Keep them cool and dry.

Frame photographs for display using acid-free mats and ultra-violet filtering glass or Plexiglas. Archival materials for mounting framed photo-graphs are readily available from professional frame shops, craft stores and preservation supply companies.

Store photographs in archival albums, folders or boxes. Look for acid-free papers and albums, archival quality adhesives and page protectors and mounts made of polyethylene, polypropylene, Mylar Type D or archi-val polyester. Avoid using magnetic or self-adhesive albums, glassine envelopes, papers and mounts with high wood-pulp content and most commercial tapes and adhesives.

Many old photograph albums are acidic and contribute to the deterio-ration of the photographs they contain. You can remove the prints from the old album and put them in an archival one or (especially if removing them would damage the photos) interleave each album page with an acid-free paper cut to the size of the page. Albums are a good way to protect photos from light and dust, while at the same time allowing for arranging and labeling them so that they can be viewed and enjoyed over the years.

If you have a favorite old family photo that is scratched, torn or stained, you can take it to a paper conservator for repair. Or you can take it to a professional photographer who can make an improved copy, often removing or covering cracks, tears and stains. Displaying a good copy and storing the original is an excellent way to preserve your most valuable family images.

Last but not least, remember how often you’ve wondered who the people are in one of your old family pictures and when and where it was taken? Using a soft pencil on the back or acid-free archival labels, don’t forget to identify the people and date your new family photographs!

Have a question about the care and preservation of a family treasure? Contact the Collections Management office at 703-631-1429 — we’ll try to help you or direct you to the appropriate resources.

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