How do we save our photo collections for our family in the future, especially if we are using a digital camera to take photos? Should we print off paper copies? What format will be the best for archive purposes? Is there someplace to archive photos online?
What about our collections of older photos, slides and home movies; how can we best preserve these?
All of these are really valid questions and not all of them have satisfactory answers given today's technology. Depending on the quality of the paper and chemicals used in developing, old photographs may be in excellent condition or almost useless. I have hundreds of photos that date back into the 1800s and they are in excellent condition with very little deterioration. On the other hand, I have much more recent photos where the color has faded or become discolored and they photos are almost useless. The same thing has happened to my early 35mm slides. They are in very poor shape after almost 50 years.
Photo conservation can be real challenge and also be very time consuming and will require special storage techniques. Piling the photos in boxes may not be the optimal way to store old photographs, but it beats most of the problems associated with albums. Some of my most difficult photograph problems have come from photo albums either when the photos were glued down to construction-type paper or when they were stored in special sticky surfaced photo pages with plastic coverings that stuck to the face of the photos. In one case, the entire photo album had been soaked in water, due to a flood or other leakage, and the photos were covered in a layer of mold.
Of course today, we would suggest that digitization as a partial solution. But the old photographs themselves should be preserved as much as possible. One of the biggest problems facing preservationists and archivists are the efforts to "preserve" historically important documents made in accordance with previously acceptable standards that have proven defective over time. It becomes a challenge to undo the mistakes of the past.
We recently had a patron come into the Mesa FamilySearch Library with an old document. The well-meaning volunteer at the Library counseled the patron that the document could be best preserved by lamination. This suggestion created such a stir that we heard about it all the way from Salt Lake City, Utah. Lamination is nearly always irreversible and will, for all practical purposes, ultimately destroy the document or photograph.
Fortunately, there are ample sources of information and help on the proper methods of photographic preservation. Any such efforts should begin with digitization, so that any further deterioration of the original will be avoided in the digital copy. There is a separate issue of digital preservation, but that will need to wait to another post. Right now, after digitizing the originals, we are concerned with preserving the physical original photographs.
There are hundreds of archives and libraries that have detailed instructions on how to go about protecting and preserving old photographs. Unfortunately, some of the suggestions are beyond the means of the average genealogist but most are simply good sense. If you study some of the online resources, you will soon understand the goals of preservation and how it works.
Here are a few of the sites:
The American Museum of Photography: Preserving and Protecting Photographs
The National Archives: Family Archives
The Library of Congress: Preservation Directorate
Cornell University Library: Preserving Your Family Photographs (PDF)