What Archival Really Means

(Hint: Not Much)

by Sally J. ~ The Practical Archivist




 You've seen these words on photo albums and scrapbook supplies, but I bet you didn't know that they are basically meaningless. Yep. That's right. Sad but true. There is no standard legal definition for any of these terms. Which means that companies are free use these words to describe any product they want to sell -- even products made from materials which are known to cause damage to photographs. I have personally seen those notoriously damaging sticky magnetic albums sold as archival. I nearly caused a scene in the scrapbook store.

Check out this little-known fact: The term "archival" has been applied so loosely and so inappropriately that it's no longer used in International Standards for photographic materials.

But what about acid free?

Acid free is great. You need to keep your photographs away from acids because they act like a very slow fire. If you've ever seen a brown burn-like stain left by a newspaper clipping, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

So, yes! Acid free is important, but it's not enough to assure the longest possible life for your photographs. If you'd like to check the acidity of any paper, there are inexpensive pH testing pens available from most archival supply companies. Keep in mind that the lignins that remain after trees are turned into paper become acidic over time, so "lignin-free" is also important.

There is only one way to be sure you are getting the highest quality archival supplies.

As always, independent testing gives us the most reliable information. Thank goodness for the PAT (Photographic Activity Test) -- an International Standard (ISO 14523) developed by the Image Permanence Institute. The test involves incubating materials in temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers to simulate aging. Manufacturers must pay for this test, and it takes between four and six weeks.

The PAT predicts potentially harmful interactions between photographs and storage materials such as album pages, covers, and envelopes. It is also used to test all the components of storage materials such adhesives, inks, paints, labels, and tapes.

You can find PAT passed materials at an archival supply company such as Gaylord and Hollinger Metal Edge.


Bottom line: If it has not passed the PAT --  you cannot be absolutely certain that it is "Photo-Safe," period.


Every year during American Archives Month, you can purchase a Family Archivist Survival Kit from The Practical Archivist's website. Created by Sally Jacobs, an archivist who has worked for Library of Congress Prints and Photos, American Girl, and Wisconsin Historical Society, this kit is designed specifically to protect a family's most cherished ancestor photos.

Since 2012, each kit is bundled with free access to more than 12 hours of instructional how-to help via Jacobs' Joy of Organizing Photos website. Family Archivist Survival Kit ($135 plus S&H)



 About the author:

Sally Jacobs, The Practical Archivist is on a mission to save your family photographs from an untimely death. She has a Master's in Library Science with a Specialization in Archives Management and has worked on collections housed at the Library of Congress and the Wisconsin Historical Society, among others. You'll find plenty of free advice on things like organizing photos and preserving heirlooms on her website, practicalarchivist.com and her Practical Archivist Facebook page



Like this angry rant?  Click here to read another one of mine about how SO MANY bad photo products are labeled "archival" (yeah, this topic really angries up m'blood)