The Archive Lady: Preserving Old Black Paper Photo Albums
Steven from Florida asks: “I just received an old family album that needs preservation. It is an old album with a string binding and old black pages of which some photos are glued on and a lot of loose photos with some just barely attached to the pages. My question is: Do I keep the old album and work with it (which seems like that would be hard to do) or just get a new archival album and some sleeves and work that way? Also, Do I try to take off the glued pictures or just put the whole page in a sleeve?”
Steven has a great question about those old black paper photo albums that many of us have in our genealogy records collections. These albums were extremely popular back in the late 1800’s and throughout the 1900’s. The photographs were either pasted onto the pages or they were attached with photo corners that are pasted into the album.
We have several of these types of black paper photo albums in the Houston County, TN. Archives. It is very important that these types of photo albums be handled with care and preserved properly. Any home archivist can preserve their own black paper photo albums. First and foremost, the black paper in these albums is not archival. They are not acid free and are full of chemicals. The paste that was used to glue the photographs is also not archival and can be damaging to photographs over time.
The first thought would be to remove the photographs from these albums. I would caution everyone about removing the photos from these types of black paper albums. If the paste has worn away or deteriorated enough that the photos come off the pages easy, then removing the photographs would be okay. Otherwise, do not pry the photographs from the pages because damage could be done to the photographs. Dismantling a photograph album like this should be a last resort to preserving the album. Keeping an original photograph album intact, as much as possible, is always the first choice.
Before starting, please put on gloves. When working with photographs, archivists always use gloves to keep the oils and dirt from their hands from getting on the photographs and causing damage. You can use white cotton gloves or regular latex gloves. Do not handle any photographs without wearing gloves to protect the photographs from any potential damage.
I would suggest that the first step is to digitize the pages in the photo album. Use a flat bed scanner, digital camera or some other device that allows you to lay the pages flat. Do not use any device that requires the pages be fed through the device. These types of self feeding scanners can damage the photographs if they get stuck in the device. Digitizing and documenting each and every photograph from the album is a great archiving tool. If something were to happen to the album, you would still have the digital images. Be sure to digitize the photographs in the order they appear in the album. Sometimes the photographs were placed in the album chronologically or in some sort of specific grouping. This pattern may not be evident as this project begins but might become clear as the digitized scans are studied.
Use archival tissue paper and interweave the tissue paper between each and every page of the album. This will create a barrier between the photographs and the adjacent black paper pages. This will insure that if photographs come off and the glue still remains, the glue will not be touching the other photographs on the adjacent page. Place the entire photograph album in an archival box lined with archival tissue paper. You will want to purchase a box that fits the album as perfectly as possible. If the album is moving around in the box, crumple up tissue paper and put around the album so it doesn’t move. Do not cram the photo album in too small of a box. You want the album to fit snuggly so it doesn’t move around in the box. Store the box with the album in a cool, dark and dry place. Never store documents, photographs or artifacts in an attic, basement or someplace where it is humid. Always keep out of the sunlight.
If there are loose photographs that have fallen out of the album, they need to be kept with the album. Put the loose photographs in archival sleeves. If it can be determined where the loose photos go in the album, insert them where they belong. If it cannot be determined where the loose photographs belong, place them at the beginning or the end of the album. Another option would be to place the preserved loose photographs on top of the album in the archival box separated with a piece of tissue paper.
If you are fortunate enough to have these wonderful old black paper photo albums with your ancestors’ photographs in them, you have a treasure! Preserve and archive that album so that future generations can enjoy those photographs!
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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