When I first learned that the rest of our semester, including spring break, would be completed from the comfort of my one-bedroom apartment, I realized I would finally have the chance to sort through all of my wedding photographs! For months the prints have been sitting in envelopes, waiting to be organized and properly labeled.
Whether they are old or new, silver gelatin or digital, everyone has piles of photographs that could benefit from a little attention during this time. Following are five steps you can take now to better understand and help preserve your family photographs:
The best way to understand what you have in your family photograph collection and to eventually store these treasures properly is to sort and organize. Different categories could be based on size, subject matter, or type. To learn more about identifying photographic print processes, check out these online resources:
Knowing the type of prints you have will help you decide which ones are susceptible to light damage (e.g. chromogenic prints) or other agents of deterioration and can inform how you display or store them.
During or after the sorting process, take time to label your prints. This can be done easily and reversibly using pencil on the back. Do NOT use a pen or adhesive labels, as these can eventually bleed to the front or cause staining. This process can certainly lead to fun conversations in your household, over Facetime, etc., as you and your friends and family work together to remember who or what is in that picture!
An excellent way to ensure the long-term preservation of your family photographs is to digitize them. If you do not have a desktop scanner, don’t fret! There are now many scanner apps available. If you cannot scan all of your prints, prioritize those that you think have faded or are your favorites. Once you have digital versions, you can share them with your loved ones while practicing social distancing.
4. Frame or rearrange
As you sort through your prints, you are sure to find favorites that you forgot about. Take time to fill any empty frames you may have or rotate out photographs you currently have on display. This will help with their preservation. If you currently have photographs displayed in front of windows or in direct light, take this opportunity to move them to a safer location.
Once you have everything sorted and labeled, you should store your photographs in a way that will keep them safe and also allow you to easily access them in the future. Ideally, photographs should be stored flat in archival acid-free boxes or in polyester sleeves (not adhered) in archival albums. These materials can be ordered from Gaylord Archival or University Products, but they are not required for preserving your photographs. If your collection does not contain film, it can be safely stored in a plastic tub. Avoid cardboard at all costs! Acid free envelopes can also be used to maintain groups of photographs. To avoid fluctuations in relative humidity or temperature, store the prints in an interior closet.
While we currently face many challenges, taking the opportunity to look through our photographic prints can provide much needed comfort. As I sorted through my wedding photographs, I was reminded of the joy of being surrounded by family and friends. While you sort, label, and rearrange your photographs, take time to enjoy them, and find hope in knowing that you are preserving them for future generations to enjoy as well.
(WUDPAC Class of 2013 alumna Crista Pack—now objects conservator for the Missouri Historial Society—recently put these tips to work in preservating her own photo collection. Crista posted a video of her project here.)