The Chemical Sandwich of Doooom! Top 5 Tips from Practical Archivist

by Sally J.

in * How to ORGANIZE Your Photos, * How to PRESERVE Family History Treasures, Free Articles / Blog

5 tips to help you preserve your one-of-a-kind family photographs

1. You can’t keep it all. Really, you can’t.

I get surprised looks when I share this truth with my workshop participants. I realize it’s the opposite of what most people expect an archivist to say. But archivists know better than perhaps anyone else that you can’t possibly keep everything. Don’t be afraid to lose the dreck. Your grandkids are not going to want every single one of your vacation slides. On the other hand, they would probably love to have a small set of photos of you having fun on vacation.You’re not doing future generations any favors by leaving the editing up to them.

2. If it’s worth keeping, it’s worth treating right.

Cycling temperatures and humidity levels are bad for paper and film. Avoid basements, attics and garages at all cost. Instead, store your treasures in the interior closet of a house that has some form of climate control. And by climate control I mean a space that has basic heat and air conditioning. Avoid UV light, which causes fading. Place photos in high quality envelopes, sleeves and albums. How can you know if it’s safe? Unfortunately, you can’t rely on terms like “archival” and “photo safe” because they are unregulated and therefore meaningless. Fortunately, there is an objective, 3rd party test called the Photographic Activity Test (or PAT). Use only PAT-Passed enclosures for the photographs you want to last tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. More on that in my What Archival Really Means post.

REMEMBER! Your entire collection does not need to survive 200+ years (see #1, above). Which means you don’t have to give all of it the Cadillac treatment. Invest the most in the images that mean the most to you.

  • Invest part of your family budget in high quality enclosures: Acid and lignin free, no PVCs and plasticizers. Use an archival supplier like or For photographs and film, choose products that are labeled “PAT Passed,” which means they will not react with photographs. (PAT stands for Photographic Activity Test and is an ISO Standard independent age acceleration test.)
  • Just as important, invest the time it takes to¬† write the stories behind your photographs. Which brings us nicely to Tip #3…

3. The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory.

They say a photograph is worth a thousand words, but look in your own family photo collection and you’ll find plenty of photographs with little to say. Stiff, uncomfortable looking ancestors whose names have been lost to time. We archivists have a term for these mystery pictures: Orphans.

Don’t let your photos become orphans! Write down information about your photographs before you forget. Write it down for your children’s children’s children because you may never have a chance to meet them face to face. Write down the stories behind your photographs, the ones that naturally pour out when you sit down with an album and start swapping tales. If you’re not sure how to get started, I highly recommend Denis Ledoux’s Photo Scribe method. It’s a simple technique that uses your photo collection as a starting point.

4. Digital is more fragile than you think.

Magnetic media (floppy disks and digital tape) begin to fail in 5 to 10 years. The most generous estimates give them about 30 years. Optically etched media (burned with a laser like a cd-rom or dvd), begin to degrade within 5 to 15 years. And that’s not counting scratches. In the word of digital, there is no equivalent of shoving your photos in a shoebox and stashing them in a closet. No, sir. If you want to bring your digital photos with you into the future, you will have to migrate them to new storage devices every 3-5 years. You’ll also have to save them in the newest version of the software that turns the 1’s and 0’s into your vacation snapshots. Quick solution? Scan your prints and print your digitals. Print out any image that you can’t stand to lose. Upload it to your favorite photo processing store. Make lots of copies of your favorite digitals and spread them around.

5. Rescue your photos from the Chemical Sandwich of Doooom!

Those sticky magnetic photo albums that used to be so popular are just about the worst place you can put a photograph. Acidic cardboard covered in stripes of acidic glue on the back, smothered in a vinyl sheet that is so chemically volatile it stinks. Oy. Fortunately, this is one of the few hands-on conservation projects that’s easy enough for non-experts to tackle successfully. The key ingredient is a microspatula, which you can find in various archival catalogs and dental supply stores. If you’re nervous about using it, I created a kit that includes photo-illustrated instructions and a pair of cotton gloves. You can learn more about my $25 Photo Rescue Kit here.


Related Articles:
How to Organize Photos Like an Archivist Part 1: Level of Description

How to Organize Photos Like an Archivist, Part 2: Three Examples of Minimal Level Description (Box & Folder Level)

Organizing Photos: Can Photographs Be Clutter?

Organizing Photos: Presentation is Only the Icing

Photo credit: That’s my Grandma Anne and her sister Mabel. It’s actually a pin.

Previous post:

Next post: