Taking Care of Your Personal Archives

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Q: Going through old photo albums and archives, I've found most of my pictures and papers are slowly decomposing. What's the best way to store personal documents?

This post was originally published on The Smithsonian Archives' blog, The Bigger Picture and republished on the National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog. It is republished here with permission. It was written by Catherine Shteynberg, the social media and marketing coordinator with Smithsonian Institution Archives.

See more posts about the Smithsonian.


As many of you may know, a couple weeks ago, as a part of the Smithsonian's October Archives Month celebrations, Smithsonian Institution Archives experts answered your questions about your own personal archives. The Facebook Q&A session we held over at the main Smithsonian Facebook page was a great success, and so we wanted to highlight some of the interesting questions that came out of the session. A big thank you, again to you all for your wonderful questions, and a big thumbs up to our two experts, Nora Lockshin, SIA's Paper Conservator, and Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA's Electronic Archivist, for taking the time to answer these questions.

Q: How do you remove photographs from an old album that is falling apart or damaged?

A: It depends on what type of album the photographs are in. But before you remove any photos from an album, make sure that you note any inscriptions with names, dates, and places from each album page, and consider taking a high resolution picture of each page so that any information can be remembered and recorded. If you are removing photos from a "magnetic" or sticky album, one of our Conservation Fellows at SIA cooked up a handy-dandy video last week demonstrating how to remove photos from these albums with floss. If you are removing photos that are held in by photo corners, Nora notes that these photos can usually be removed "by very carefully slitting the fold of the 'photo corner' with a thin flat metal spatula or a very thin and rounded butter knife (not a thick or pointy one!). Be sure to hold the tool flat and parallel to avoid gouging the photo itself. You can protect the photo by covering it with an index card while you work at the photo corner. Do this all the way around rather than trying to flex the photograph itself. You can also slide the tool under the photo and photo corner and sometimes the corner will just pop off from weakened adhesive (sometimes they have come off already). If the photo is stuck directly to the page, then you can try to see if the tool can slip through the adhesive but you risk tearing the photo or splitting its layers, so go very slowly and keep your eye on level with your tool, watching and feeling for resistance or tearing at all times."

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Q: Two of my photos are stuck together. What is the best way to get them unstuck?

A: Nora notes, "Unfortunately, depending on what kind of photos you have and how they became stuck together (a condition we call 'blocked'), they may be very difficult to get apart without further damage. Do not try to use water to separate images that are stuck together because the pictures probably became stuck together due to high humidity or contact with water, and the very many different types of photographs through the centuries can react very differently to water. Water will soften the image coatings and image itself, and the dyes if there are any, or writing inks that may be on the backs of pictures. These could easily fade or change in water and spread into the other pictures, and also photos become very vulnerable when wet -- you could end up separating layers within each photograph. If you don't have negatives for these anywhere, and the images are unique and precious to you, you should consider contacting a photograph conservator through the professional organization the American Institute for Conservation, and click on Find a Conservator and How to Select a Conservator to find a professional conservator in your geographic area."

Archives2.jpgQ: What is the best way to store old photographs?

A: There are a few options for storing old photographs, Nora says, "from new albums to organizing photos in envelopes, or clear sleeves that wrap around the photograph and have adhesive on the sleeve to affix to the album. You should look for supplies made only of photo-safe components of plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene, or Mylar/Melinex polyester) or acid and lignin-free paper. Beware of applying adhesive directly to a photograph, even if it says "acid-free". Adhesives should never touch the original, and acid is not the only problem associated with self-stick tapes." These can then be placed in an archival folder or photo album. The Smithsonian does not recommend any one archival supplier, but you can do a Google search for supplies, or there are lists online from our colleagues in the Smithsonian and the National Archives and Records Administration of suppliers that you may contact.

Q: What is the best way to store family papers or documents, such as old marriage certificates?

A: Nora recommends choosing an envelope or L-sleeve made of the materials mentioned in the above question about storing photographs. "If you choose plastic, choose a document holder that has a piece of paper or acid/lignin free insert for behind the certificate. This will give the support the fragile document needs and also absorb acid."

Archives3.jpgQ: Should I take digital photographs of analog photographs, documents, etc. as a cost effective way to preserve and store these items for additional "back-up" and peace of mind?

A: Lynda notes that taking photographs of items is one way of digitizing items, especially when those items are very fragile. Another option for that material that is in good shape, is to scan it. Lynda recommends saving those digital images onto a computer that is backed up, and to keep the images on external media, such as a thumb drive or external hard drive: "Multiple copies are wise. Don't rely only on a photo-sharing service online. You will also need to plan for future upgrades with your hardware and software to make sure you can still access the images."

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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