Friday, 13 January 2017




Happy New Year! With every new year comes the hope to successfully organize and clean our homes. I've decided to start out 2017 with something easy but practical. It is something everyone can do and should do, if they are able: conserving family photographs and documents!

Over the holidays, I went back to my hometown to spend time with my family. Everytime I go home I go over old family photographs; not just the ones from 5 or 10 or 15 years ago but the ones from 50, 70, or 100 years ago.

Do you have any photographs like that in your home? What about letters and other documents that are just as old?

These aren't just objects to toss into a closet and forget about. These are exciting wonderful windows into our pasts and our family's history. Such things should be protected as much as possible, as you never want to lose them and the stories they have to share.

Photographs and documents can succumb to various types of damage: sun damage from improper storage, mould, water damage, tearing, fading, and more. Most damage is the result of time and improper storage, especially because old materials often used in photography are actually not good for the items themselves.

Conserving your family photographs and documents is actually pretty easy!


1) Scanning

Scanning is the ideal way to protect your photographs long-term even though it is time consuming. If it's negatives or slides you will need a specific scanning machine for these. It is a good idea to have an external hard drive to protect the digital photographs, otherwise one bad day for your computer, it breaks, and they're all gone. The resolution that is best for future printing is 300 dpi, save it as TIFF or JPEG, and 24 bit RGB color. The other standard settings on a scanner are usually good for image downloading.

2) Re-photographing

Take new digital photographs of your old film ones and store them as above in an external hard drive. However, I find there are often problems with light shining on the old photograph and it can become quite a hassle unless you set up an intricate lighting system.

Example of re-photographing. My sister snapped this shot of a photo of some of our Czech ancestors. Source: Shannon McLaughlin. 


Storage is probably the most crucial element for preserving family photos/documents yet it is also easily misunderstood. The best environment for photographs is a dark room-temperature room with 40% humidity; attics and basements are generally a no-no, as you don't want to store them in a damp location or somewhere that is prone to flooding/pest invasion (note: silverfish loove paper products!). Also remove any old materials that are harmful for photographs (glassine sleeves, often used to store old negatives, are bad for photographs).

Generally shoeboxes are fine for photographs, but for older more sensitive photos (hint: the century-old ones), archival standard storage materials is best. What is this? Archival quality storage material is more commonly known as acid-free/lignin-free or storage materials that don't create harmful off-gassing or leaching, usually because they have been buffered to maintain a more stable pH. If possible, it is best to store photographs/documents flat with acid-free tissue between them. Carr McLean is a professional Canadian archival product company, however local craft stores will usually sell archival products and if not may know alternate locations.

Albums are a fine way to store photographs but you have to be aware of what kind of album it is! Self-adhesive albums, which we may remember as the ones with the plastic-y sheets that lay overtop the photographs, are one such example of a bad set-up; as the years pass, it becomes more and more impossible to peel the plastic back without ripping the photograph (this is happening to me these days). Some tips:

-use photo corners instead (even though they can be frustrating)
-use acid-free paper photo albums
-separate pages with acid-free tissue

Note: store on a shelf so they aren't sitting on the floor and store away from food/water.

Examples of different types of archival boxes for your storage needs! Source.

Another Note: Make sure to use containers that are the proper size, not only big enough but tight enough so the items don't shift too much. Don't overstuff it and again, acid or lignin free is your friend!


What if you stumble upon a photograph or document that is already moldy, stuck together, torn, has damaged binding, etc? (hint, if there are pests, isolate it in a quarantined room and then try to decide if it is worth keeping!).

Contact a conservator or your local archives society for advice and aide! Normally, if proper storage doesn't do it you will need some extra help.

There are many methods out there on caring for your family photographs and documents. With the advent of the digital age we should all try our best to preserve our family's older physical objects, if not for ourselves then surely for future family generations to look back on. Start your 2017 off with safe storage of precious family memories!


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