Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Shoe Boxes of Old Letters, Photos and Papers -- Part Six

Handling and Storing Old Photographs

Photography has a very short history. The first photographic process, the daguerreotype, was developed in about 1838. Old photographs are also more subject to changes over time and mishandling. Some of the old photos I have inherited over the years are in terrible condition. The worst have suffered water damage after being glued down to black paper album pages and are covered in mold. Even if the photos are stored properly and not piled in old shoeboxes, the images are subject to chemical changes and especially color photos and slides will fade over time. Digitizing these old photographs has the highest priority. Here is an example of a photo taken in the mid-1960s with poor film.

This is a 35mm slide and the color shift is due to degradation of the film not to a poor exposure. In some of these cases, you can correct the color shift using Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, but in other cases, the color is lost. In this case, you might be better off changing the photo to a black and white (grayscale) image.

Unlike paper documents, photographic documents need to be handled and stored with extreme care. There is only so much you can do both practically and ethically to restore an image. Turning to the Library of Congress, Preservation Directive, Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs, here are the latest suggestions:
Taking care when handling any collection item is one of the more effective, cost-efficient, and easily achieved preservation measures. 
Take proper care when handling photographic materials by:
  • Having clean hands and wearing non-scratching, microfiber or nitrile gloves; having a clean work area
  • Keeping food and drink away
  • Not marking photographs, even on the back side
  • Not using paper clips or other fasteners to mark or organize prints
  • Not using rubber bands, self-adhesive tape, and/or glue on photographic materials
You might notice that, with photographs, there is a suggestion to use gloves when handling the photos. With slides, it is important to handle them only by the paper mounts. With other photos, absent gloves, you should handle them by the edges and avoid touching the surface of the photo.

Storage is another matter. I have saved several substantial collections of photographs from destruction by simply being willing to "store" them. Over the years, I have scanned tens of thousands of photos. These images are available to be uploaded to online family history websites, such as the Memories website. Probably the majority of the photos I have now are of living people and sharing those online or sending digital copies to relatives is another way to make sure the images are preserved. Here is a screenshot of some of the photos in the Memories section that have been uploaded by me and others in my family.

Most of these are photos I would never have seen without this photo sharing option.

Storage of photos is a real issue. Historically, people pasted them down in albums. Later, there were a number of mounting options such as photo corners and others. One thing that becomes very important is to identify the people in the photos if at all possible. As time passes, the identity of the people becomes more and more of an issue.

Here are some storage suggestions from the Library of Congress.
Good storage is arguably the most important preservation measure for photographic prints and negatives:
  • A relatively dry* (30-40% relative humidity), cool** (room temperature or below), clean, and stable environment (avoid attics, basements, and other locations with high risk of leaks and environmental extremes)
  • Minimal exposure to all kinds of light; no exposure to direct or intense light; use duplicate slides in light projectors
  • Distance from radiators and vents
  • Minimal exposure to industrial (particularly sulfur-containing) atmospheric pollutants
  • Protective enclosures within a box
 **** Relative humidity is the single most important factor in preserving most photographic prints.
** For contemporary color photographs and for film negatives, however, temperature is the controlling factor affecting stability. Storage at low temperatures (40°F or below) is recommended. Appropriate enclosures for cold storage are available from various vendors. 
*** Suitable protective enclosures for photographic prints and negatives are made of plastic or paper that meet certain specifications:
  • Paper enclosures must be acid-free, lignin-free, and are available in both alkaline buffered (pH 8.5) and unbuffered (neutral, pH 7) stock. Storage materials must pass the ANSI Photographic Activity Test (PAT) which is noted in supplier's catalogs. Buffered paper enclosures are recommended for brittle prints that have been mounted onto poor quality secondary supports and for deteriorated film-base negatives. Buffered enclosures are not recommended for contemporary color materials. Paper enclosures minimize unnecessary light exposure; are porous; easy to label with pencil; and are relatively inexpensive.
  • Suitable plastic enclosures are made of uncoated polyester film, uncoated cellulose triacetate, polyethylene, and polypropylene. Note: Photographic emulsions may stick to the slick plastic surfaces of these storage materials at high relative humidity (RH). Plastic enclosures must not be used for glass plate, nitrate, or acetate-based negatives. 
Prints of historic value should be matted with acid-free rag or museum board for protection. Adhesives should not touch the print. Matting should be done by an experienced framer or under the direction of a conservator. 
Store all prints and negatives (whether matted or in paper or plastic enclosures) in acid-free boxes. If possible, keep negatives separate from print materials. Store color transparencies/slides in acid-free cardstock boxes or metal boxes with a baked-on enamel finish or in polypropylene slide pages. For more information about storage of negatives, see Motion Picture Film. 
Protect cased photographs (e.g., daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes) in acid-free paper envelopes and store flat; keep loose tintypes in polyester sleeves, or, if flaking is present, in paper enclosures. 
Storage of family photographs in albums is often desirable and many commercially available albums use archival-quality materials. Avoid albums with colored pages and "magnetic" or "no stick" albums.
As you can see, it is highly likely that the photo collections you will find in your research will not be preserved. In every case, as quickly as possible, digital images should be made of every photo. I also recommend making a digital image of complete album pages before digitizing individual images. This helps to preserve any relationships that might be discovered by looking at the arrangement of the photos.

Next, I will take on some suggestions for digitization.

See the previous posts in this series here:

Part Five:
Part Four:
Part Three:
Part Two:
Part One:

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