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As an archivist with the Archives of Michigan, I get a lot of questions about how to take care of photographs.

There are a lot of things to consider when taking care of photographs. Personally, I’m a big fan of taking a seemingly insurmountable task and breaking it into more manageable parts. It’s how I survive getting my two kids out the door every morning by 7:55 a.m! So, I’m going to talk about how to care for your photographs in three posts – this is part one.

First, we are going to chat about the kinds of photography you have. In a couple of weeks, I’ll touch upon preservation issues you are likely to encounter based on the kinds of photography you have. Finally, we are going to have a serious discussion about what should you keep – no, the answer is not “everything!”

Step 1: What is it?

My first question for you is: What kind of photograph is it?  Since the creation of the daguerreotype in 1839, there have been countless types and forms of photographs. Tintypes, silver gelatin prints, color prints and Kodachrome slides all were created using different processes and they each require different types of care (that said, you should generally keep any photographs and documents in a dry, cool, and dark place).

But, before we can get to care, you need to determine the photograph format. I could list all the kinds of photography here, but other institutions have already done this and done it well. Harvard’s History of Photography timeline is an excellent way to explore all formats (and photography styles!) through examples from the photography collections at Harvard University. Click here to visit the Harvard History of Photography Timeline.

Some Homework…

This is a lot of information to go through – take your time, inspect your photographs, and compare the look and feel to those featured in the timeline. Consider the approximate date of the photograph in terms of popular methods of photography at the time. After reviewing the timeline, make an itemized list of your photograph types and inclusive dates.

Then, move on to Part 2 of this series. In that article, I’ll tell you all about how to identify and address preservation issues with the most common photograph formats.

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Acid free folders and boxes are used to store photographs at the Archives of Michigan, and soft cotton gloves are used while handling them.
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