How Should You Preserve Your Photos?

Whether it’s the food you should (or shouldn’t) be eating, amount of exercise you need, or the best way to store your photos, the advice coming from people who should know seems to change all the time.  As experts conduct new studies and technology makes advances possible, people should adjust how they do things.  How does this translate to best practices for your photos?


Photo Albums

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, magnetic albums were the popular way to display your printed photos.  They weren’t really magnetic, but they sure were sticky.  You put your photos on the glue and sealed the chemicals in by smoothing plastic over them.

Then there were albums with sleeves to slide the pictures in, often with three-ring binders holding the pages in.  You put in every picture you took and threw the album on a shelf with a dozen others.  Sometimes the weight of the pages would pull them down and tear the plastic sleeves on the metal binder.  There was also no guarantee that the materials in the album were safe for the long term.

Now the trend is to make a photo book using the best photos, and not even print your pictures out at all.  While you’re more likely to take a nicely-bound book off the shelf, you don’t have physical copies of your secondary photos that still tell a story, but didn’t make it into the book.  Handling a printed book is not the same as coming across an actual physical photo.

Archival-quality storage for slides

Photo Storage

I’ve seen loose photos stored in many types of containers.  Shoe boxes and other cardboard boxes have chemicals that make print photos deteriorate quickly.  Sealing photos in a tightly-closed plastic container does not allow the photo chemicals to breathe.

Ideally, you would find archival or acid-free boxes, which are free from any chemicals that would harm your photos.  Acid-free containers are made using alkaline technology (buffering the natural acid in wood).  The archival designation means they also contain no unbleached pulp or groundwood,  making them even safer, and they usually have reinforced corners for long-term storage.  Archival boxes can be fairly expensive, which is good incentive to weed out your photos before storing the keepers.

A 1966 scrapbook page

Scrapbook Albums

In the 1950s and 1960s, many scrapbooks were made to hold everything from photos to matchbooks to corsages.  These were taped or glued in with no thought to how they would hold up 50+ years later.  The tape stops holding things down, yet leaves a brown residue, and any photos get lost in all the other memorabilia.

Modern scrapbooking became popular in the 1990s, and acid-free materials became widely available for keeping photos and other mementos safely together in a flowing story.  This format allow you to tell the story around the photos while letting your artistic side out.  Downsides are the expense and shelf space of these large albums.

Photos stored in a basement location


If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll see a water heater in this basement storage area.  In addition to threats of flooding from normal basement issues, these photos are also in danger from a leaky water heater.  The humidity level is higher in a basement, too.

Attics and garages are usually not insulated as well as the rest of the house.  They are more likely to see pest infestations as well as drastic weather temperatures and fluctuations, making them poor places to keep your precious memories.

You want your photos to be kept in a steady temperature, with low humidity and no direct light.  This might be in a closet or on a bookcase in a main area of your home.  The key is to preserve your print photos in the safest way possible so they can be enjoyed for generations.


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