Spring Cleaning: sorting and storing your family photos

As we head into summer some spring cleaning projects may still be on your to-do list. Maybe you inherited old family photos or you’ve been collecting postcards and prints from your travels that you’d like to get in order. We often get asked about how to care for documents, photos, and family albums. Here are some steps that you can take yourself to get your own collection organized and minimize future damage.

Getting started is a little like baking. The process will be easier if you read the recipe first and have the right tools and ingredients at hand before you dig in. Discovering that you are one egg short for your cake can really throw a wrench in the plans. Then, choose a dedicated space that you can take over while you carry out your project. Ideally, you can leave your project undisturbed over the day or weeks that you work on it, the space is clean, and you can cover light-sensitive objects when you aren’t working. If you have several boxes to get through break your project up into manageable chunks. Tackle one box at a time instead of all at once.

After reading the steps below you’ll have a better idea of whether you can complete this project on your own or if you’ll need some additional help or advice from a conservator.

Getting an overview of your collection

We recommend starting most projects with an assessment. This allows you to get an overall snap shot and create a road map of how to move forward. The overview should answer the following questions:

  • What materials and objects do I have?
  • How many do I have of each type?
  • Do I want to keep everything?
  • Do I want to whittle my collection down to the most important things?
  • What do I consider important?

Answering these questions will help inform your next steps. It will also help you figure out the type and quantity of supplies you will need. When looking through your collection write down the types of objects and approximate quantity. A rough estimate will do. You’ll want to know if you have documents, photographs, frames, albums, other three-dimensional objects, textiles, or a combination. This way you will discover if you have all 4×6″ prints that can fit into a box together or framed works and albums that need to be stored separately.

Choosing storage containers

The right storage containers will go a long way to prevent damage to your collection. However, some materials are better than others and there are a few other factors that will go into your decision process for which are right for you. Paper-based containers such as corrugated board boxes and bristol board folders are suitable for most projects as long as they are acid-free and if possible, lignin-free. Some archival boards have a buffer, often calcium carbonate, which is alkaline and can neutralize acids. Wood-pulp paper products often used for documents and for backing photographs release acids as they age causing further damage to objects around them. However, the alkaline reserve in buffered materials can negatively interact with photographic emulsions. So, use only unbuffered tissue paper and boards with photographic collections.

Plastic containers may be useful if you need to protect against potential water spills and high humidity. Plastic bins with lids are great for stacking if you many boxes worth to store. Small objects can be put into appropriately sized paper-based boxes and then arranged into plastic bins for additional protection. Boxes within a box, or layered housing, adds layers of protection against light and fluctuations in the environment. Interleaving sheets or folders can be used to protect each individual object, these can be put into a box all together, which can be put into a larger box for ease of handling.

Documents, albums, and photographs often come in standardized sizes. This makes purchasing pre-made housing enclosures relatively straightforward.

Handling for safety

A few measures can be put into place to keep you and your heirlooms safe while you handle them.

  • Place a washable cloth, such as a bedsheet, or plastic sheet on your work surface. This will help define your workspace and keep any possible mold and debris from spreading around the house. The cloth will help you collect small bits that may come loose during handling. It can also be easily rolled up and washed when you are finished with your project.
  • Wear a clean apron to protect your clothes. Make sure it is easily removable and washable for when you have finished working for the day.
  • Wash and dry your hands completely before handling objects. We all have oils and salts on our hands that can soil or damage paper and photographs.
  • Wear gloves to further protect against oils from your hands. Gloves can also protect you from mold and grime that may have accumulated on the documents. We recommend powder-free nitrile gloves that fit well to provide maximum dexterity.
  • Loose dust can be removed with an air blower to prevent abrasion across photographic surfaces. It is tempting, but don’t blow the dust off yourself as you risk releasing drops of saliva as well. Occasionally a soft-bristle brush, such as a mop-style watercolor brush, can be used to reduce dust.

Finishing your project

In the end, your documents and photographs should be neatly organized in a way that will make it easy for you to access and find them in the future. Additionally, the housing should minimize bent edges from handling and be made from materials that will not cause damage. The steps outlined here are by no means exhaustive for your spring cleaning project.

You can find materials and more information at the following links.

We are available for consultations if you are interested in getting assistance with your project.


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