Saving your Family Photos

Today I wanted to share a number of tips and tricks to help preserve the precious family photos in your own family, by discussing my photo preservation journey.

I’m back from my long European Vacation (I did not see Chevy Chase) and with my body aching from all the great fun I’d had, I decided to take on a project that has been slowly simmering over the last 2 years.

My uncle Ralph passed away in October 2015 and left behind a treasure trove of 1501 pictures from his 77 years on this planet. Also found amongst his belongings were a number of my Grandmother’s albums, which contain an additional 527 photos from her 85 years on this planet. He albums have been missing for about 10 years and we thought we had lost them forever. The only copies available were some early scanning I had done almost 15 years ago. Hard Drive space was so expensive then that I could only do 100 dots per inch (DPI) scans, which is grossly insufficient for modern printing standards.

He had done his best to preserve the photos but lacked some essential knowledge of the techniques involved in archiving the images. Time and mother nature hasn’t always been kind to the photos and how and where they are stored going forward will play a significant role in their longevity.

The task ahead was great and I had promised that if I was the one that was allowed to archive them that I would assure that everyone would have a copy, but I had no idea of how I would do that or when I could accomplish it. I’ve spent almost 2 years being overwhelmed by the scale of the project and just recently determined how I would move forward. As I did finally start moving forward I made my own mistakes along the way and now clearly see the path that must be taken, not only to digitize the photos in their current state, but to store them in such a way that they wouldn’t be able to be harmed by the elements, light, that toxic glue that many of them had from those terrible albums sold in the 60s and 70s, wood pulp and most importantly each other.

Let me take you through my process, but before I start I must confess that I am very meticulous and detail oriented. People have called me a few other things in my life, but let’s not get into that now. I also have a tendency to just jump in on a project and get started, even if that isn’t the most efficient way to do it. I know that I’ll determine a process as I move forward and am anxious to get started…and more importantly get finished! This time I took my time and tried to make sure I was doing it right. I still made mistakes along the way but this time they didn’t cause a loss of information and my early preparation paid off to get me back on track.

The process I used followed these steps:

  1. Before attempting anything, take pictures of everything! How the photos are organized, likely meant something to the person who assembled the album or clustered them together. Being able to define what came from where is essential in putting it all back together in the future. So, grab your camera phone, find a place with enough indirect lighting that doesn’t come from above. This way the Mylar on album pages won’t reflect the lights in your pictures. Move decidedly from the front of the album to the back taking a picture of the covers and every single page. This will give you a permanent record of how you found them and can come in handy when you drop a bunch of photos and need to put them back in a particular order (yep, it happened to me).
  2. Next, I tackled the loose photos, because they are easier to run through the scanner quickly. My uncle had never really put together an album from his photos, but had taken the unusual step of trying to document almost everything in his collection. His work provided me a great amount of information about the photos, but it also resulted in some damage to those same photos he was trying to protect. Take a good look at this photo, calculate the number of errors you can spot and then we can discuss it next.

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  1. Rubber Bands were used to group the photos together. This is great, except that the rubber band is a petroleum based product which will degrade over time. After several years, they are no longer flexible and often will discolor the item they are there to secure.
  2. Paper Clips often leave their indention on photos and cause them to warp. In humid climates, such as the Gulf Coast, where my family is from, paper clips are known to rust as well.
  3. Post-it Notes have glue and while it isn’t especially sticky imagine how they might deteriorate over the course of several decades in this condition. The glue would interact with the face of the photo below it and discolor or strip off the top layer of part of the image below. Instead of Post-its I made notes on blank 4×6 photo paper  that had come with my printer so that I didn’t have to touch the originals.
  4. The Post-its are two errors in one. What isn’t apparent from the picture is that he wrote his notes on the Post-it Notes while they were on top of the photo. This left an indention with the words he had written on the photo below. While I’m on the topic, lots of well meaning people will circle someone’s face in a photo with a large group of people, or write other information somewhere on the photo on the front, back or in the margins. This is something else you will want to avoid. It is very easy to damage the image this way and the ink also has a long term impact on the photos longevity. Instead of ink, use only a light pencil and better yet, do that on a secondary image that accompanies the original, so you don’t impact your source photo.
  5. Ziploc Bags are also a Petroleum based product and the chemicals used in the creation aren’t of Archival Quality.
  6. Paper Envelopes contain wood pulp and glue, which aren’t of Archival quality. While the paper decomposes at a different rate than the photos themselves, it can disfigure the items which you hold so dearly. The same is true of most Cardboard products and you will want to take precautions to only use Archival Quality boxes with no Wood Pulp.

As I scanned the photos, I removed and discarded all the 6 items listed above and transferred that information into the tags (aka Metadata that accompanies every file). Once scanned I maintained the organization using the blank photo paper as dividers in a modern Archival photo box and place them on a high shelf inside the house in an area that receives little light.

Fire and Floods can have a devastating effect and although it may be tempting to store these photos in a Fire Proof Safe, please do NOT! Temperature and humidity control is very important and the safe tends to hold in moisture which damaged the items I was trying to preserve by leaving them with Mold. If you live in a flood prone area, seek a location on higher ground, but not in an Attic or Garage. They must be stored in a climate controlled environment.

scansnapTo scan the photos, I used my handy Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500, which isn’t cheap, but can be found on Amazon for about $400. It is about the size of a football and is also a fantastic tool to digitize your entire office and remove all those old file cabinets. I have already scanned over 10,000 pages with this scanner in the year I have owned it and it is a joy to work with. Depending on the size of your project you may not need such a beefy scanner, but for the work I do with the Babb Family Association, it is essential.

When working with photos that have been in contact with those “Toxic” photo albums from the 60s and 70s, make sure to clean the scanner lens regularly and check quality of the scanned image constantly. At times, I had to stop and clean the lens after every 5-10 photos.

I’ll come back to these so called “Toxic Albums”, other types of albums and how to digitally recreate them in future posts. I will also cover how to share those photos once you have them digitized? The last step in this process is about how to share them with your loved ones and perhaps your family too!

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