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Hello again!  In last month’s post on how to care for your photograph collection, we reviewed the various types of photography. Now, let’s move on to how to preserve your photographs. The first step in preservation is in how you handle the photographs. This is your first line of defense against premature destruction.

Handling photographs

Here are some things to keep in mind any time you handle your photographs:

  • Wash your hands. Don’t add the nice hand cream afterwards. The lotion is great for keeping your skin smooth, but can work to break down the photograph material.
  • Set up a clean work area where you can work with the material.
  • Keep food and drinks out of the area. If you are clumsy like me, you’re better off not taking a chance.
  • Wear gloves. You want to wear non-scratching, microfiber or nitrile gloves. If you don’t wear gloves you run the risk of leaving fingerprints on the photographs that may end up staining the image.
  • It’s tempting, but don’t write up long descriptions on the backs of your photographs (or on their fronts, for that matter.) If you want to document who or what is in the photograph, mark a number on the back and create a separate document with the number and the description.
  • Paper clips and staples should be banned your work area. Don’t use them to organize your photographs. Not only do these leave indents and marks , but over time they can rust and damage the photograph.
    Similarly, rubber bands, self-adhesive tape, or any kind of glue are also banned. The acids in these materials will break down and damage the photographs over time.

Storing photographs

After you organize your collection in your clean work area, you will need to store your material. Generally, all types of photography do best with the following conditions:

  • Look for a  storage space that is cool, dry, and clean. This is the environment we maintain at the Archives of Michigan, and you can create a similar environment at home. Shoot for a space that has 30-40% relative humidity, at room temperature or below. The space should be clean and have a stable environment. Basements and attics are frequently used, but they are vulnerable to temperature and humidity fluctuation, leaks and insect activity and should be avoided if possible.
  • Displaying photographs in frames, on bookshelves or close to sunny windows will effect the longevity of the material. Just like with fabric curtains and other materials, photographs will fade under exposure to any kind of light. I would recommend placing the material in boxes rather than displaying it. If you really want to display your collection, display one piece at a time and rotate it often… just like staff does at the Michigan History Museum. Alternatively, you could make a copy for display and keep the original safely tucked away in storage.
  • Generally, I recommend organizing your photographs in acid free folders. Place these folders in acid free boxes.

Learn more

I found some great resources online that go through this basic suggestions in more depth.  I would encourage you to review them if you would like to learn more:

  • Library of Congress. “Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs”
  • American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Homepage.
  • National Archives. “How to Preserve Family Papers and Photographs.”

Next, move on to Part 3 of this series. In that article, we’ll talk about deciding what to keep.

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An assortment of photos from the collections of the Archives of Michigan.
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