At Photo Gym, we often talk about preserving and protecting photos, slides, negatives and video but the ways we do that are varied. One aspect that effects the safety of your photos is the type of boxes, bins or bags they are stored in. You see terms like “archival” and “acid-free” but have you ever wondered what makes them “safe”? If you had photos stored in those old magnetic albums you know that how you store your photos can have pretty serious impact on their future.
Many of us have damaged photos from the cardboard/adhesive/plastic sandwhich that those album pages created. And when you begin to see the signs of damage: discoloration and stains coming through the back from the adhesive; the photo may be stuck to the page so securely that removing it will only damage it further. And those old albums with brittle paper pages certainly are precious and you want to ensure they are safe, but is that paper photo-safe? How about the corners used to mount the photo to the page? You may be thinking yours are safely tucked away in a photo box you got at the local craft store – but is it actually photo-safe? Not all are and it can be difficult to be sure. Even the envelopes photo labs return your prints in aren’t designed for long-term storage. Slides, negatives and video can also be chemically damaged if not stored properly.
The Image Permanence Institute, which is dedicated to the development of best practices for preserving images, has a standardized test (called a Photographic Activity Test or PAT for short) which explores interactions between photographic images and the enclosures in which they are stored. You can learn all about PAT testing on IPI’s website. When you start digging into archival standards, you’ll also learn there is something called lignin. Lignin is another type of acid that causes papers to become brittle over time. If you have newspaper clips, marriage licenses, birth certificates, or any type of paper in your photo collection, you want to be sure you are storing them in lignin-free containers. Lignin and other acids can actually destroy the paper itself when activated by humidity and temperature (you know, like in your attic, garage, basement).
Maybe your collection, like a great number of collections, is stored in a plastic tub. Better! As long as the plastic is inert and stable, you can rely on plastic to be a chemically safer alternative. You want to avoid plastics made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Plasticizers make PVC unstable and it deteriorates quickly which can damage your photos. Look for inert plastics such as Polyester (Mylar), Polypropylene and Polyethylene.
So, what can you do if you aren’t sure if your storage is safe for your photos?
First, test the paper products for acid. This means your boxes, papers, envelopes, etc. You can get an inexpensive pH Testing pen that will tell you if there is acid in the paper.
Next, if you have photos stored in the photo lab envelopes, take them out of them. If you want to keep the photos together, there are photo-safe envelopes you can use safely. We like John Porter Everyday Archives Photo Storage Envelopes and Lineco Photo File Envelopes which are both acid and lignin free. You can find both in the Photo Gym Amazon Local Associates Store along with other recommendations for printed photo storage and organization.
Finally, to truly ensure the memories captured by your photos are preserved for future generations, consider scanning them so there is a digital copy. Printed photos, no matter how well they are stored, were not designed to last forever. Once you have scanned them, you can make multiple copies and backups so you can be sure the story will live on even after the photo has faded.
Please let us know if you have any questions about the safety of your photo storage! If you need help getting started, email us to Schedule a Personal Training session to find out how to do it yourself or let us do it for you!