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Beyond the Shoebox:
Practical Tips for Storing Personal Photos

©1996 by Rod Slemmons. Used with permission.




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Ask any professional archivist or museum person how they store their personal collection of family photographs and you will find that it is just like you do: jammed in small boxes or manila envelopes or in sticky-leaf albums in a hot, dry attic or a damp, moldy basement. Finding the time to organize photo collections is obviously hard. Here are some suggestions for preserving your family heritage that will make life more interesting for your grandchildren and easier for your local historical society long after it is no longer your problem.

Identification

It is always tempting to write names and dates right on photographs, but this is usually not a good idea unless you write very lightly near the edge of the backside in pencil. Writing on the face of a photograph is very hard to remove, especially if in ink. Ink or pencil writing in the middle of the back will emboss through to the front of the image, and some inks actually migrate through after a few years.

Some people photocopy photos they are trying to identify and send the photocopies around to family members to mark up. Writing on the photocopy will save the original. You can keep a notebook or file folder of these copies with your collection.

Albums

Avoid modern albums that have self-sticking leaves, as the lines of adhesive show through in a few short years, and will often rip the photos if you try to remove them. The best way is still the original way, with old-fashioned black photo corners that place no glue on your pictures. Try to find an album that has white pages and only use one side of the pages, leaving the facing page blank so the pictures do not damage each other face to face.

If your older family albums are already loaded on facing pages, you can solve this problem by interleaving the album with good "bond" writing paper, available in stationary stores, that is acid free. Sometimes you can even bind these interleaves into the album by taking out the cord or metal bolts that hold the album together and punching holes in the bond paper to match the album and then putting it all back together. Be careful to keep the order of the album pages, as they usually are either in chronological order or in an order that tells a story or corresponds to important family events. This is especially important to genealogists who are trying to establish dates.

It is not a good idea to remove pictures from albums individually, both because it usually tears them and because you lose the original context that might help date or identify them. These albums are your most valuable family history resource. As memories fade -- or are modified by good storytellers -- the album remains as concrete evidence.

Slides

Slides shift color very slowly in dark storage, and faster if they are frequently projected. If they are kept cool and in low humidity storage, the colors can sometimes be surprisingly bright after many years. The standard painted metal boxes with lids that allow you to store a whole trip or event's worth in a block are the best. Archival plastic sleeve sheets for three ring binders are O.K., but sometimes tend to stick to the slides in high humidity situations. Both are available in photo stores. Buy the thinner sheets; Print File (from Get Smart Products or call 1-800-827-0673) is a good brand. When projecting, change slides every 10 or 15 seconds if possible to make them last longer -- this also keeps your audiences awake!

Sleeves, Envelopes and Boxes

If nothing else is available, regular "bond" stationary envelopes make good individual sleeves for photographs or negatives. Just be sure to place the emulsion of the negative (dull side) and print face away from the glued seams of the envelope, as these attract moisture and deposit it on whatever is in contact with them. A better solution is to request a Light Impressions Corporation catalog of archival storage supplies (PO Box 22708, Rochester, NY 14692-2708 or call 1-800-828-6216 or e-mail LiWebsite@limpressions.com). In itself this catalog is an education as to what is available, some of which can be purchased from the University Book Store (4326 University Way NE, Seattle WA 98109-5809 or call 1-800-335-7323). Light Impressions will mail any quantity of their product, large or small. You will see that there are good, acid-free paper sleeves for just about every imaginable size of picture and/or negative, as well as acid free albums that are not expensive. They also sell storage boxes that are sturdier and less prone to collapse than the traditional shoebox.

However, if you do not have the time or patience for this, just find some good non-brown stiff boxes and store your pictures in good bond envelopes on edge, sorted by size. You can write a brief description on the envelope to be able to retrieve them better.

Storage Conditions

Photographs in general and especially slides are particularly susceptible to mold damage, so it is important to store them in the part of your house that has the most consistently median heat (50 to 70 F) and low humidity. Front hall closets are usually a good place. This also helps you to grab them on your way out in case of fire. They also can be quickly damaged by chemical fumes from nearby highways, and especially by fumes from drying petroleum-based paint products. This can be guarded against by storing your smaller boxes in a large closable container like a trunk-which is usually where your 100 year old photographs have lived until now, and why they have lasted so long. If you are planning to refinish your floors or paint whole rooms with oil base paint, it is very wise to take your photos completely out of the building.

Very important and unique family pictures should be backed up with a good copy negative, and copy prints distributed to other family member's households. This stretches their lives considerably, and can remind those relatives of unique pictures in their possession they may want to share.



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