For 11 years, I have been professionally involved in the preservation of historic photographs of people, places and things that are housed at the BYU Archives. I am acutely aware that the majority of family photographs are being slowly destroyed or lost entirely because of misinformation. There are many "do's" and "don'ts" which, though simple, will help mightily in saving our heritage.
Don'ts - Do not use paper clips, pins, rubber cement, common glues, cellophane tape, ink, typewriter, any pencil harder than #2, hard erasers, variety-store acetate protective sleeves or albums, especially the popular magnetic albums (plastic sheet over waxy, sticky backing board).Do not write anything on the front of the photo and put identification only around the border on the back, never across the image portion of the back, as this may damage the emulsion on the front. Do not crowd photos on the album page by overlapping, nor put original newspaper clippings with photos. (Make photocopies of clippings on acid-free paper instead.)
Do not store photos in cardboard boxes; wooden containers; albums covered with wood, leather or cloth; or cedar chests. Do not keep photo collections anywhere but in living quarters. Attics and unfinished basements are subject to too much variation in heat and humidity, fires and broken water pipes.
Do's - Create a clean working area for working with photos. Have no liquids or food handy. Wear white, cotton gloves to avoid fingerprints. When recording identifications, indicate whether the negative is available and where it is. Keep negatives in separate containers and areas. If disaster strikes and one group is lost, you still have not lost the entire collection.
Use archival mounting corners or create slots for mounting purposes. Use archival tape to affix the photo identification on the back edge of the photo. Protect fine photos with archival plastic or paper sleeves or envelopes. Identify all persons and places whenever possible, showing names, dates, locations and ages if known.
If you have special photos that you want to display, make copies. Display the copies and store the originals. (This includes the old ones on the wall.) If you have favorite color photos, have black-and-white copies made immediately, and check into the availability of a laser color printer for making a display copy.
Always mat a photo before framing it under glass. There must be air space between the glass and the photo to allow for expansion caused by changes in temperature and humidity.
The most common "safe" plastics are polyethylene, polypropylene, and Mylar D. There are many plastics on the market now. Those that are unacceptable for archival purposes often carry a tell-tale odor. Space prevents detailed analysis, but a quick rule-of-thumb is this: If you can smell it, you don't want it.
Many of us have albums that have photos "kissing." Photos should always be protected from face-to-face contact by having a sheet of acid-free paper inserted between pages of the album to prevent sticking and impressions.
Hints - When buying new storage materials, if the items are not clearly identified, talk to the buyer. If local contacts don't work, contact the university archives, libraries or museums in your area to see what they use and where they buy it.
Never throw negatives away. Regardless of its age, a negative in good condition gives you an original photo. A picture of a picture means loss of detail.
If you have a large collection and cannot afford the time and money to take care of it all at once, set intermediate goals of specific portions of the task to be completed in a given period of time. Begin by identifying the photos and removing paper clips, staples, elastics, cardboard and bad plastics, which all cause damage to photos. Then rehouse them in acid-free boxes. Go from there as time and money allow, using acid-free envelopes and folders.
If you have questions on any of the items discussed above, please feel free to write to me at BYU Photographic Archives, Room 5072 HBLL, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602.
The old "paste-and-press" approach, or "Put 'em in a cardboard box" has created many preservation problems. Some of these can be solved, but it would be better to prevent them in the first place.
- Wilma "Billy" Plunkett is Photographic Archives supervisor at BYU. She is a member of the Provo 4th Ward, Provo Utah Central Stake.