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Protecting Family Memories from Time

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How to Store and Preserve Your Family Photos
Store your family photos in the attic or basement? Find out why that isn't such a good idea and how to care for your photos so that future generations can enjoy them.

For more than a century, people have been capturing special moments with photographs. In order to make sure that your children and grandchildren will someday enjoy the photos you take today, it is important to take care of your photos and protect them from the effects of age.

What is a Photograph Made of?

Photographs are made up of several layers. The top layer (or emulsion layer) contains the image suspended in gelatin and is coated onto a layer of photographic paper or film. A middle layer of adhesive is used to make the emulsion stick to the base.

The materials used to create the image vary depending on the type of photograph. A black and white image is made up of light-sensitive silver salts called silver halides. Color photographs and slides are made up of dyes. With proper care you can expect your color prints to last for decades, but in general, they do not preserve as well as black and white images.  

Causes of Deterioration

Often a combination of factors lead to deterioration of photographs. The following are some of the most destructive influences.

High Temperature and Relative Humidity
High temperature and relative humidity are among the most destructive factors that affect photographs. Photographs should not be kept in temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity above 60% for long periods. Daily, drastic temperature changes (such as those that may occur in an attic) and continuously damp areas (such as basements) should also be avoided.

Because a photograph's emulsion layer is composed of organic materials (gelatin), heat and high humidity promote the growth of mold and fungi. These elements also cause base materials to deteriorate quickly. Cold temperatures (refrigeration) are preferable, especially for color photos, but only if humidity can also be controlled. Standard refrigerators have a high relative humidity and are not a good place to store photographs. Air-conditioning in combination with a dehumidifier will help control the effects of temperature and humidity when refrigeration is not an option.

Air Pollutants
Since all kinds of airborne substances can be damaging to photographs, be sure not to store photos in areas where pollutants are present. For example, avoid closets that also contain cleaning products and remove photos from rooms freshly painted with an oil-based paint for at least a month (latex paint is safe).

Ultraviolet Light
Direct sunlight and fluorescent light can be very damaging to a photograph (especially color photos which will fade rapidly when exposed to light). For all types of photographs, it is best to avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight and to use ultraviolet filters on fluorescent lights. If you wish to display photographs in a sunny area of your house, you might consider framing a copy of the photo and storing the original in a safe place.

Natural Disasters
There are a few things you can do to protect your photographs from flood, fire, and other natural disasters. Storing them up off the floor is relatively simple and can help tremendously in case of minor flooding. Storage in an enameled steel file cabinet can prevent photographs from being crushed and offers some safety from water and fire damage. You may want to consider a safe deposit box for extremely valuable photographs. It is also wise to give copies of special photographs to relatives to avoid having them all in one place in case of a disaster.

Proper Storage Methods and Material

Using specialized storage methods and materials will help prolong the life of your family photographs. Since prints and negatives can stick together, it is best to store them in separate envelopes or plastic sleeves. When storing mounted prints, be sure to place a sheet of paper or plastic between them. Within these enclosures, your prints and negatives can be stored in acid-free storage boxes on a shelf or in steel file cabinets.

Photo albums are convenient and popular ways to store (and share) your memories. When choosing your album, make sure the album pages are acid fee. When shopping for albums, be sure the album is "archival" and that "PVC" was used in the manufacturing process.

Finally, consider making copies of your family photos or storing them electronically. You can do this by scanning photos or by taking negatives to a photo processor and having them put them in electronic format for you.

As you can see, there are several relatively simple things you can do to help your photographs last longer. By carefully choosing the mounting materials, storage materials, and storage location for your photographs, you can preserve memories for generations to enjoy.

About the Author
This article was written by staff.

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