Preserving Old Photos and Documents

Preserving Old Photos & Documents

(This Page Was Last Modified Tuesday, 09-Mar-2004 01:12:56 MST.)

How to Preserve Old Photos and Documents


Archivists have discovered the hard way that using ordinary lamination plastic for old documents, newspapers, photos, etc., does not preserve them.  The best way to preserve them is to store them in a dark place after placing in acid-free Mylar film (not laminated).  Ordinary lamination material still permits light rays to pass through it and to cause a chemical reaction to the acid that most modern paper and modern dyes contain, and that ALL old documents photos contain.  This causes deterioration of paper and fading of the paper and print.  The heat and pressure of most lamination processes also damages documents.

Of course, keeping original documents is important, but one should always copy (scan) newspapers and other documents and then print them on acid free paper, which can be found at just about all stores selling printer paper and/or computer supplies.  Too, one should save the graphics files from scanned documents and put the files on CDs for permanent safekeeping.  Life expectancy for data on CDs is 80-100 years for premium quality CDs.


The key to preserving your paper documents and photos is to keep them in an acid-free, humidity-controlled environment.  Your paper documents and photos need protection from a variety of elements which contribute to their deterioration -- namely:  light; heat; humidity; acids in papers, plastics, and adhesives; pollutants; and pests.

You can store and preserve your paper documents in a few different ways.  You can organize and file them in acid-free folders, and keep them in an acid-free box.  Or you could place your documents in archival-safe, acid-free plastic sleeves and keep them in an album or binder.  Another popular alternative is to encapsulate a document between two sheets of polyester (Mylar) film.

Regardless of how you choose to store your documents, NEVER STORE THEM IN AN ATTIC OR BASEMENT.  Extreme temperature and humidity changes cause rapid deterioration.  Store your items in a room that is comfortable to you, with stable temperature and humidity.

Plastic enclosures are safe for documents ONLY if they are made of polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene.  Other plastics are not chemically stable and will release damaging acids over time.  Especially dangerous is PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic commonly found in "store-bought" binders; it emits hydrochloric acid over time.

There is no problem with putting more than one document in the same plastic sleeve, but documents should be interleaved with acid-free paper to prevent acid migration from one document to another.  Acid-free paper that is buffered will also counteract the formation of more acids in the future.

Lamination of a document is NOT considered a safe conservation technique because the process may potentially damage a document due to high heat and pressure during application.  Moreover, the laminating materials themselves may be chemically unstable and contribute even more to the deterioration of the document.  Lamination also violates a cardinal rule of conservation, and that is to only apply treatments that do not alter the item, and which can be reversed.  Lamination cannot be reversed.

Since newspapers are made of highly acidic paper and deteriorate so quickly, you should always photocopy the information you want from them onto acid-free paper.  You can then store the original paper in an acid-free box, or mount clippings in an archival scrapbook.  Clippings could also be stored in acid-free file folders, interleaved with acid-free paper.  If you want to frame the clipping, you should frame the acid-free copy rather than the original clipping.

The inks used in photocopiers and printers are only moderately durable.  Most printers have no alternative ink available that will not fade with time.  Epson does produce DuraBrite ink for some of its printers, which is water-, smudge-, and light-resistant, and is supposed to be stable for 80-100 years.  It is a good rule of thumb to photocopy or scan any document you wish to preserve onto acid-free paper.  If you then keep the original and copy away from light, heat, humidity, etc., the document should last for several generations.  Incidentally, there are archival inks for use on paper when one makes entries by hand:  Pigma ink comes in a pen (do a web search for "Pigma ink" or "Sakura", which is the company making this ink); Actinic ink comes bottled for use with a quill pen or in an ink pad (do a web search for "Actinic ink").

Often when paper objects (such as wedding certificates) have been stored rolled for many years, they become quite brittle.  In order to safely unroll your certificate, moisture needs to be restored to the document (known as humidification).  Placing your document in a humid environment for several hours should make it more flexible, allowing you to carefully unroll and flatten it.  Watch out for ink on the document that might bleed (don't humidify it if the ink will run).  You may have to experiment with the level of humidity and the amount of time you leave the document exposed; monitor to make sure it does not get saturated.  Attempt to carefully unroll the document while it is still humid.  (Do not proceed if it resists or begins to crack or tear.)  You could then flatten it by placing the document between two pieces of blotting paper, and then place a heavy object on top for a few days.

The same rules which apply for the safe storage of paper documents generally apply to photos.  Again, there are a number of options for preserving your photos.  If you prefer an album, some archival albums have acid-free components such as scrapbook style pages, picture-pocket pages made of one of the safe plastics, etc.  Store-bought albums with "magnetic" pages are typically highly acidic and dangerous to photos.  Besides albums, there are acid-free boxes made to accommodate between 500 and 1000 prints.  These boxes come with acid-free envelopes and sleeves for negatives.  Finally, photographs can be encapsulated in polyester film (acid-free, such as Mylar) just like paper documents.

There are a variety of storage options available for storing negatives.  The best choice depends on the number of negatives and one's preference.  Negatives can be stored in acid-free envelopes -- paper or plastic -- and placed in an acid-free box made for negatives and prints.  There are also clear acid-free plastic sheets which hold various size negatives and can then be put in a binder.  The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) recommends non-buffered storage for color prints and negatives, and buffered storage materials for black and white prints and negatives.  Nitrate film should be stored in buffered materials.

When photos have been glued to photo album paper, the safest and recommended way to remove them from the paper is to carefully try to lift the photos off of the album page with a tool called a micro-spatula or a small spatula.  Slip the micro-spatula under the edge of the photo, and carefully move it back and forth.  The ease with which the photos come up may vary depending on the humidity level.  Dry conditions may make prints and backing brittle, easier to lift.  Or humid conditions may soften the adhesive and ease removal.  Experiment with it, but DO NOT force the photos so that they tear.

If you cannot lift them, cut away the black paper around the photo.  If photos are on both sides of the page and you cannot cut around, interleave the pages of the album with acid-free paper and store the album in an acid-free box.


Old documents are often rolled or folded and stuck in cedar chests and drawers for years before someone moves them.  They are aged in their shape and can break with handling.  They are dry and need to be hydrated.

Look around your home for a container with a tight fitting lid (not so tight fitting that the container needs to be tipped for a grip to take off the lid).  One container that can be used is a new galvanized garbage can; try to find a small one if all you have is a few letter size documents.

Inside the (clean) container, place a heavy bowl with a flat bottom.  Inside of THIS bowl, place a glass of water.  Documents can be placed, several at a time, around outside of the bowl in the large container (outside of the water please).  Make sure they are stable enough not to tip over into the water.  Place the lid on the container and leave it alone for several hours.  Needless to say, this whole thing should be out of the way of dogs, children, and mothers who insist on constantly dusting!  Put it in a spare room and close the door.

After several hours, check the paper.  Flex it to check how well it unrolls, unfolds, or just feels right.  (It's like making dough - you learn the feel.)  Some papers hydrate very quickly.  A super thick post-Victorian wedding certificate might need to be left in as long as 24 hours, but many papers hydrate in six hours.

Purchase white blotter paper in an art supply store.  Lay one sheet of blotter paper down on a table, and spread the documents as flat as possible on the blotter paper.  Check to make sure folded edges are unfolded, and torn edges close together.  A set of stamp collector tweezers is perfect for this job and other steps to follow.  Place another blotter paper on top.  Weigh down this whole thing with heavy books (one use for an encyclopedia set).

The blotter paper will absorb any excess moisture and mold is rarely a problem.  Leave the documents pressed for 12 to 24 hours.  If they roll when uncovered, they either need to be pressed more or they possibly need hydrated more (although that's very rare).

After uncovering the documents, you can begin repair.  Odd smudges of dirt and pencil can be encouraged off with a Pink Pearl eraser.  Don't use any other kind.  Other types of cleaning products should only be used by professionals, and the Pink Pearl eraser should be used with extreme caution.

There is a special repair tape called "Filmoplast" (transparent).  (Do a web search for "Filmoplast"; you will find dozens of sources.)  The back of the document should always be repaired first.  The Filmoplast tape is pH neutral and doesn't yellow.  It also can be removed and applied again during the taping process, which is a big help for those doing this for the first time.  Don't use "scotch" tape--EVER.  Remove old tape if it won't destroy the document finish.  It usually falls right off.

Mylar top-loader envelopes are fine for storing smaller documents.  They can be purchased at one of the discount chains on sale (very inexpensive, about $4 for 50).  Archival companies charge a lot more.  But many documents need bigger storage.  You may also purchase a pack of large size Mylar sheets and a heavier Mylar roll in a very large size.  To use these, you need double-sided tape.  Make sure you purchase Ph neutral tape.  (Again, just do a web search for "Mylar envelopes" or "Mylar sheets".)

Cut two pieces of Mylar about one inch larger than the document you have.  Lay the now repaired and flat document in the center of one Mylar piece.  Unroll a length of double-sided tape and carefully place it from one corner of the document to another corner, leaving at least 1/4 inch of air space from the document to the tape.  Repeat on each side, leaving an "air hole" of 1/8 inch or slightly larger at each corner.  There will be a paper lining on the top side of the tape.  Leave it in place for now.

Lay another piece of Mylar on top.  Set a gentle weight on top of the stack, so that your sheets don't move as you work.  With your tweezers, work one edge of paper lining off of one length of tape.  Strip it off, and then press the two Mylar pieces together on that side. Repeat, one side at a time. It can be tricky to do this without making a ripple, but the tape stays removable for a long time.  An old squeegee roller can be used to set the tape after it is checked.  Trim outside edges, if needed.  Store flat in an archival box or artist's portfolio for the best preservation.

The first document is nerve-wracking to do, but it really is easy.


Since the beginning of time, mankind has been recording history; however, only within the past 150 years have we been able to document history photographically.  What we learn about our past provides a transition from our ancestors to our offspring.  Photographs provide a graphic portrayal of yesterday, but if we neglect and do not preserve our photographs, some of our history will fade away along with those images.


ENVIRONMENTAL - Temperature and humidity affect photographs and documents more than any other element.  Best conditions are under 70 F, with the relative humidity under 50%.  High humidity is most harmful, and high temperatures accelerate the deterioration.  Cyclic conditions (high heat and humidity followed by cold and dry weather, followed by high heat, etc.) are very bad for film emulsion and may cause cracking and separation of the emulsion from the support.


Attics and Basements - The worst places to store your photographs or documents is in an un-insulated attic or basement.  In the summer, temperatures in an attic could reach 125 F, while in the winter they can get down to less than 0.  With the constant high temperatures and humidity in the summer, and low temperatures and humidity in the winter, the photographs or documents will become brittle.  In severe cases, the emulsion (image) on the photograph can separate from the base (paper).  These cyclic conditions will have a devastating effect on any paper product.

Un-insulated basements are usually moist, which can cause photographs to stick to each other.  Another problem encountered in basements is that they are great breeding grounds for insects and rodents which are strongly attracted to gelatin and cellulose in the photographic emulsion.

The best places to store important photographs or documents are in a safe deposit box at your bank.  They are usually climate controlled and kept dark to provide almost ideal storage conditions.  The ideal storage conditions are 68 2 and humidity of 50% 5%.

Wood, Paper and Paper Products - Wood and papers contain harmful additives such as bleach or hydrogen peroxide.  Use only paper products that are acid free.  Proper storage containers are available from archival suppliers (see below).

Miscellaneous Materials - Rubber bands or rubber cement contain sulphur, which degrades photographic emulsions.  Paper clips can abrade or scratch the surfaces of prints or negatives.  Pressure sensitive tapes usually contains acids which can accelerate the deterioration process.  Any kind of ink also contains acids.  Fingerprints on prints or negatives create physical damage from the oils and acids in human skin.

Fumes and Vapors - from oil-based paints, varnishes, shellac, carbon monoxide (automobiles stored in garages), and photocopiers, including laser copiers, cause serious damage to photographs and documents.  (Most photocopiers produce ozone as a by-product; ozone acts as a bleach and the fumes may accelerate the deterioration).  Also, the intense light and heat from copiers are detrimental to photographs.


Paper - Use only lignin-free (lignin is from paper pulp), acid-free, un-buffered paper.  Use this paper to store photographs or as interleaving paper in albums.

Plastics - Any of the following plastics are safe to use in storing photographs, negatives or documents:

Polyester, Mylar, Polypropylene, Polyethylene, and Tyvek.


The first step is to identify what the pictures show, because only photos that are identified and labeled are worth preserving.  Sometimes it's best to start with your most current photos and work backward in time.  Note what's going on in the picture, who's in it, and where the photo was taken.  Date the photo as closely as you can.  Write the information on the back of the photo with a soft 6B drawing pencil, which is available in art supply shops.  Be sure to use people's real names if you know them, not just associations like mother or grandfather.

For home movies, write the identifications on the leader.  Note when it was shot, by whom, and what the event is.  Home movies can be very difficult to identify.  If possible, sit down with the person who made the movie, ask him/her to narrate it, and take notes.

Many people have old photos in their collections that are often unidentifiable.  You often can't say with certainty whether the person shown is a family member.  Set the pictures aside and work on them last.  Put your energy into the ones that can be identified.

After you've identified the photos, work on storing them properly.  There are two primary ways to store photographic prints - using a filing system in archival boxes or using photo albums.

Use file photos in archival boxes if you have a lot of photos to arrange.  You can organize the pictures in files by subject, person, or year.  Once the pictures are organized, you can pick the best and put them in an album.  It's important to use acid free folders and boxes.  The acids in paper products can be harmful to photos.

Albums allow you to display pictures more easily, but also tend to be more expensive than filing.  Some of the best pre-made albums are manufactured by Webway, a Minnesota company (do a web search for "Webway Photoalbums").  Again, seek out acid-free papers and notebooks made from archival board.  Or you can buy clear plastic pages made from polypropylene and insert the photos.  Do not use vinyl pages or notebooks.  They emit harmful vapors and shorten the life of photos.

In general, don't take apart existing photo albums.  They're like diaries and scrapbooks; they have a personal story and order to them.  Often they contain the handwriting of the person who made them.  If the photos in an old album have become loose because of detached or missing photo corners, replace the photo corners.  The exception to the "don't take apart rule" is magnetic photo albums.  They contain a sticking material that is detrimental to photos, and they need to be taken apart.  People buy them because they allow you to easily arrange photos on a page, but photo corners allow easy management too.

Slides can be stored in boxes or carousel trays if you keep the lid on; they are very susceptible to dust, light, and extreme heat or cold.  Non-vinyl slide pages can also be used.  And if you have slides, photo CDs, home movies, or home videos, be sure to save the hardware that you'll need to view them.  You'll need that equipment to enjoy your images, when the technology becomes obsolete in the future


It's very important to save your negatives.  Many people think negatives are a nuisance, but they are the originals and they'll allow you to make new prints if a print is destroyed.  Negatives last well if they're not handled.  Keep them in polyethylene or polypropylene sleeves.

(A word about scanning photos, slides, and negatives.  Scanning photos, no matter how high a resolution you use to scan, will almost always appear "grainy" if you increase their size beyond that of the originals.  Slides and negatives, on the other hand, have such a high resolution that you can scan them and increase the size of printed pictures without degrading the quality.  As an example, if you scan a 5x7 photo and increase its size in your computer graphics program to, say, 10x14, to print out a very large picture, it WILL be "grainy" and have no "sharpness"; scanning the negative from which the photo was originally made will allow you to increase the size greatly without degrading the quality of the picture.)

Exposure to light can hurt photos.  Locate framed pictures on the least sunny walls in your house.  Better yet, make a copy of the photo and keep the original in dark storage.  Metal frames are preferable to wood (wood contains acids).  Use a 100 percent rag matte board and remove any wooden backing used in old frames.

Dark storage is especially important for color photos, such as children's school portraits.  Some studios do not process them properly, making them more susceptible to color changes.  Since they come in multiples, display one and keep one in storage.  If it changes color, have a black and white photo made.

The absolute best film to use, if you want your pictures to be around for your grandchildren and their children, is black and white.  Most color photos fade over time.  If black and white pictures don't seem appropriate or possible, then take color prints or slides.  Prints have the advantage of being easier to view, and they don't accumulate dust as much as slides.  Instant pictures (e.g., Polaroid pictures and Kodak equivalents) are good for parties and games only.  They're likely to disappear in 10 years, so when you're going to document an important event, leave your instant camera at home.

If you're going to purchase a digital camera for photos, make sure it will take pictures with a HIGH resolution/large sizes.  Older digital cameras, and newer inexpensive ones, usually took pictures of very small sizes and resolutions.  You can't take a graphic from one of those cameras and increase its size beyond about 3x5 inches.

Copy photography is the way to save the images on torn or defaced photographs.  A basic rule in photograph preservation is to leave the original just the way it is.  The copy photographer uses retouched copy negatives or copy prints to bring back the image.


I hope this will help some of you with your photographs and documents, both old and new.  GWD, SgtGeorge, Webmaster

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