Updated on 9/21/16 from an article originally published on 6/11/13.
Family photos represent decades of memories. It would be devastating to lose those memories to wear and tear from being shuffled around a home or improperly organized.
Even so, do you ever feel like you just don’t know what to do with old photographs? You can work some into your decor and tuck others away in albums for viewing on coffee tables. But what about the stashes of pictures you keep in shoe boxes and drawers? How can you store them to preserve them and the memories they hold?
Whether you need to create a space in your home for the safekeeping of family photos or must move them to a storage unit, there are several steps you can take to ensure they are protected. Remember that choosing the right materials and storage conditions are essential to protecting your precious photos.
Where to Store Family Photos for Safekeeping
The most important things when considering where to store photos are:
- Ventilation – A well-ventilated area with circulating air combats mold growth and other damaging organic substances.
- Temperature – Storage temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit can interfere with the chemicals used in the processing of photos, leading to discoloration. The cooler it is, the better when it comes to photo storage.
- Moisture – It’s not just potential flood areas you have to worry about but humidity levels, too.
- Lighting – Light can cause photographs to fade. If you aren’t able to enclose your prints completely, be sure that you are storing them in a dark place.
Best Places to Store Old Photos at Home
Storing your family keepsakes at home has the benefit of easy access.
Here are some do’s and don’ts of storing antique photos in your home:
DON’T: Store photos in a basement, attic, or garage where temperatures and humidity fluctuate with the change of seasons or reach extreme highs.
DO: Store photos in closets, cabinets, or under the bed. These locations, being part of your living quarters, will be climate controlled.
DON’T: Store photos near a heating or cooling vent.
DO: Store photos off the ground when possible.
Storing Old Photographs in a Self-Storage Unit
If you just can’t compromise the space in your home for vintage photographs that you’re unlikely to pull out on a regular basis, keeping them tucked away safely in storage can be a great option. It may require a trip to the unit when you want to access them, but you can reclaim the space in your linen closet or under the bed and sleep well at night knowing your photos are protected.
Here are some do’s and don’ts as far as placement of photos in your storage unit:
DO: Pick a climate-controlled unit. Remember: 75 degrees or cooler and low humidity are the best conditions for photo storage.
DON’T: Place old photos on the ground in a storage unit, even if they are packaged up in boxes or containers. Consider using a wire rack or pallet to keep boxes off the ground in case of flooding.
DO: Enclose all photographs completely, whether in boxes, containers, or frames.
Preparing Your Photos for Storage
Whether you choose to store at home or in your storage unit, you’ll want to organize your pictures in envelopes or boxes to preserve their condition.
An ideal container for storing printed pictures would have a sealed, water-resistant exterior, such as plastic, and soft but stiff dividers to separate prints on the inside. With that as a guideline, use your imagination! Maybe you choose to use envelopes or file folders as your dividers and a plastic tote or file box to contain them. These are likely items you’ll have on hand.
The go-to container for old photos–shoe boxes–are still a go-to for a reason: you are likely to have some around, and their stiff, square shape keep photos flat and protected. Just keep in mind that shoe boxes are not water-resistant. Consider using them for organizing your photos, but storing them in a water-resistant container or in a place where you know they will never come in contact with water.
The preservation experts at the National Archives recommend materials made of cotton or pure wood pulps to avoid contact with acids that can be hidden in other paper sources. They also suggest rolling larger, flexible prints into tubes, and using polyester film sleeves for extra precaution.
How to Organize Photos in Boxes or Envelopes
Unfortunately, if you really want to safeguard your photos, the process is going to involve more than simply piling them in photo safe boxes. Here are a few things to keep an eye on while you pack away photos:
- Flat is the goal.
Use stiff, flat materials and containers to encourage your photos to stay flat.
- Find the right fit.
Make sure the fit is right with your containers and your prints. Cramming pictures into a box that is too small in length or width is the easiest way to damage and dogear them before they’ve even made it to storage.
- Fill boxes just enough.
Stuffing too many photos in one box can have the same effect as using a box that’s too small. On the flipside, leaving too much room in a box can cause items to shift in transport. If you have extra space, fill it with non-acidic tissue paper.
- Non-acidic dividers are helpful.
Ever had to peel photos apart from another? Although it might feel meticulous, placing a sheet of paper or another type of divider between photos can save them in the long run, especially if your photos overheat or come in contact with water. The stiffer the better when it comes to dividers, to keep items flat and in place.
Tips for Preparing Photo Albums for Storage
- Use albums with acid-free sleeves, sheet protectors, or photo corners.
Look for materials like polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene.
- Avoid adhesives.
Acids that can deteriorate the quality of printed photos hide in adhesives.
- Flat and well-fitting applies here, too.
Make sure photographs have been inserted into sleeves or corner tabs that fit their size, and that they are positioned so that they will stay flat.
- Don’t overstuff.
This tip is more for preserving the quality of the album itself, rather than the photos. If maintaining the quality of the album is important to you, overstuffing can cause damage to the spine of the album or cause pages to fall out.
- Choose the album itself carefully.
Avoid textiles that might be appealing to moths and other cloth-eating pests. Leather is your best bet when it comes to albums that will last and store well.
- Store albums within larger containers, free of chemicals.
Wrap your albums in tissue paper before placing them in boxes for an added level of protection.
Convert Print Photos to Digital for Extra Precaution
It never hurts to make copies of your photos, even after taking steps to preserve them in storage. Digital copies serve as your backups in case the originals are damaged or lost. Professional restorers can also use high-quality digital copies to restore your precious photos to their original beauty.
If your main concern when backing up old photos is to preserve the memories held in them, taking a picture with a digital camera, or even a smartphone, can be a surprisingly simple option. It’s easy, and the quality serves the purpose. If you have intentions of possibly reproducing a photo from a digital copy, you’ll want to consider using a scanner or a photo scanning service.
Your digital copies can stay on a computer, but for added backup, it is recommended that you save them on a CD, memory stick, or external USB drive. Those items should also be stored safely in a water-free area of your home or storage unit!
Have any additional tips for preserving old print photographs? Please share them in the comments below!