Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Preservation Week Tip: Caring for Old Photographs

By Carol Roberts

April 23-29, 2017 marks "Preservation Week" highlighting the importance of preservation awareness. Here's another reminder to take care of your valuable historic items. What about all those family photographs that tell the family story? How many shoeboxes full of interesting treasures do you have? Here are a few tips for keeping them safe and well organized.

Don't touch or write on the emulsion side of any print or negative. Touch only the edges. Human oils and perspiration cause damage that cannot be reversed.

Don't write on the back with ink or use rubber stamps. Inks are acidic and may contain sulfur.

Don't use scotch tape or any type of pressure-sensitive tape on or near your photographs or negatives.

Don't use paper clips or rubber bands around prints, negatives or slides. They can rust or imprint emulsion.

Work on photographs in a clean work space without food, liquids or anything that could spill and stain a photo or cause photos to stick to one another.

Keep photographs and negatives in a dry, cool storage place. Keep conditions as constant as possible. Heat and humidity will cause crackling and peeling of emulsion. Daylight and fluorescent light will fade photographs.

Do carefully identify your photographs. Write on the margins on the back of prints with a soft lead pencil or with an acid-free pen that meets ASTM standard D-4236. Be careful not to press hard enough to leave an impression on the emulsion side of the print.

Use archival storage supplies that meet the Photo Activity Test (PAT). The PAT is a new standard that evaluates all storage supplies and makes sure the photographic emulsion does not react in any adverse way with items such as folders, photo albums or framing materials.

Do separate prints and negatives in acid-free paper envelopes with the emulsion sides away from the seams. Remember that the emulsion side of a print or negative can be easily damaged.

Make all your notes and information on the archival storage sleeve or folder rather than putting damaging marks on the backs of the original photos.

There are so many clues to history in photographs. Here are some you can use to learn more about the photos you have:

  • Identify the type of photographic process used to create the photos.
  • Look for the name of the photography studios that took the photos and where in the community they were located, if possible.
  • Study the clothing and styles of people in the photos.
  • All of these steps provide clues about the dates photos were taken.

To learn more about caring for historic photographs, see the following websites:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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