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How to Handle Archival Photos and Documents Properly

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Read Time: 4 min
This post is part of a series called How to Retouch, Recover, and Restore Old Photographs.
Historical Context, Contemporary Value: Old Photos as Cultural Documents
How to Digitise Archival Photographs

Printed photographs are, unfortunately, always degrading. The process of taking a film photograph is a chemical process. When you apply fixer, you slow the process but never really stop it, so that photograph will always degrade and eventually, you or whoever is in possession of it, will lose it. This tutorial looks at best practices for working with old photographs.

Storing Images

Where to Store

We can't protect a photograph forever but what we can do, is try and prolong an image's life for as long as possible, which means treating and storing them in a particular way. Direct sunlight, chemical compounds, and high humidity are the main enemies of images, and we need to do everything that we can to limit a photograph's exposure to these.

Many of us are guilty of bunging our old photographs into a box, like this. It's important to store them properly if you want to protect them.

In your own home, there's plenty you can do to help keep old photos looking their best. Try not to store them in basements, lofts or garages. Even though all of these are prime locations for our extra bits and pieces, they're prone to get very cold, very hot, too damp or too dry. The Library of Congress recommends that an ideal storage temperature is somewhere around 68 Fahrenheit or 15 and a half degrees Celsius with between 30% and 40% humidity. It's impossible for most of us to hit these exactly at home, but if you think about somewhere like a dark dry cupboard, or closet, then that would be a great place and far less destructive than your attic.

How to Store

When storing them, you should put them in containers to keep them dry and away from light. Avoid regular cardboard or wooden boxes, as they give off chemicals that can degrade the photos. You can pick up archival quality boxes, which are made from acid free, safe cardboard and reinforced with metal corners relatively cheaply online. Sometimes you can find polypropylene boxes in supermarkets, which are a good, cheap alternative. Look for a recycling symbol on the bottom with a five and PP next to it to be sure that they're made from polypropylene and not another plastic.

It's important to consider photo sleeves even when storing them in safe boxes as an extra layer of protection and to stop photos sticking or rubbing against each other. Polypropylene and polyester sleeves are both considered safe for the long term storage of photographs. Remember to keep your negatives separate from the prints, in case something happens to the box that they're in. Think of it as an analog version of backing up.

Fingers transfer chemicals and dirt, so it's important to wear gloves when handling photographs

How to Handle Archival Photos

When it comes to handling and displaying your photos, try and display extra copies where possible, rather than the original prints. Light can fade photographs and if many people are going to be looking through them then the chemicals on our fingers can do a lot of damage too.

If the photograph isn't in a plastic sleeve, it's best to wear gloves to stop the transfer of dirt and oils from your fingers onto the photograph. Latex or cotton gloves are fine, but cotton ones get dirty very quickly and if you don’t clean them regularly then you’re potentially doing as much damage as not using them at all.

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Frames and exposure to light can all damage orginal prints

Photo Albums and Frames

Traditionally people love to display photos in an album. But many of the commercially available ones, are made from materials that are hazardous to your photos. You can place your photographs on archive safe paper with archival photo corners but again, better to do this with copies rather than your originals.

If you're framing or reframing old prints, consider using clear polyester envelopes. These can then be attached to your mount or frame, instead of the picture directly. The envelope won't be noticeable once the image is back behind glass. Wood can give off harmful chemicals, so the polyester envelope will also help to add a degree of protection if you've got a wooden frame.

Sunlight and certain fluorescent lights can accelerate fading, so think about placement of your image, or try a filter and acrylic sheet instead of glass in the frame.

In the next tutorial, we’ll look at making digital copies of your archive images.

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