A client recently told me she didn’t need to do anything with her physical photo collection because her best prints were all organized in albums already. From an organizational and enjoyment standpoint, that’s fantastic! But from a preservation standpoint, it could be disastrous.
Choosing your favorite shots and arranging them in albums or scrapbooks is a really fun way to enjoy your photos. Plus, having a curated collection is a wonderful legacy for future generations of family members. And, beautiful photo albums can be stored on open bookshelves or on a coffee table so all can enjoy, rather than being crammed into bins tucked away in a closet.
All of this is great if you’ve chosen albums and scrapbook materials that are archival quality, or if the photos in the albums are duplicates and therefore disposable. Chances are, though, you probably have a “magnetic” photo album in your midst, or even a much older album, that contains some original photos.
If this is the case, you will want to prioritize these photos in your preservation efforts. Why? Because photos degrade over time anyway, but when they are exposed to certain chemicals, the degradation is accelerated.
Take, for instance, the so-called magnetic albums. Those are those sticky cardboard pages with a plastic sheet that peeled back so you could insert your photos or other memorabilia. After arranging everything just so, you would smooth the sheet over the items and, like magic, everything stayed in place. (Don’t get me started on how hard it was to get the plastic wrinkle-free…!)
The thing is, the cardboard in those albums would give off peroxides that caused yellowing, and the adhesive and the plastic sheets were acidic and caused further damage to the items in the album. You can see an example of this in two albums from my own collection: the one with the photo of me (above) is in an album I put together in the ‘80s. You can also see some mildew stains on the inside front cover. The album below, featuring our kitty Appaloosa, was an album from the ‘90s. The yellowing is quite extensive on all of the pages in both these albums.
To further complicate things, the sticky material that holds the photos in place can develop a death-grip on the photos so that removing them without further damage becomes really challenging.
But it’s not just magnetic albums to watch out for. Many other non-archival materials used in scrapbooking can cause dire consequences. The photos in this album from the early 1900s were glued in, and as you can see, the glue has created yellow spots on the photos. So not only will it be difficult if not impossible to remove the photos without damaging them, the photos will need to be scanned and digitally retouched to try to return them to their original glory.
If you’re looking for a good place to start with your photos, take a look at the albums in your collection. Chances are, these are the best photos in the bunch – that’s why they were chosen for the album – so you won’t need to decide what to keep or toss, and you’ll be preserving the cream of the crop before they have a chance to degrade.
And in the future, be sure to choose albums and storage containers rated as “archival quality” for your original photos, or, better yet, get extra prints made of your favorite shots and use those in any album you like! For instance, maybe I’ll finally get around to adding some photos to this beautiful album my friend brought back from Florence, Italy in the 1980s!