Getting Started: Photo Storage
When it comes to archival photo storage, understand that not all products are created equal. It’s like healthy food. A food may look healthy or have the word “healthy” on the packaging, but that doesn’t mean that it is a good idea to eat it.
In fact, the word “archival” doesn’t mean much in relation to photo storage. Dictionary.com describes it as “of or relating to archives or valuable records; contained in or comprising such archives or records.”
That’s not helpful at all. If you’re looking at a selection of storage items that say “archival” on them, how will you know which one is the proper storage solution? How do you even know that you’re on the right website or in the right store? Your search can become overwhelming very fast. It’s up to you as the consumer to do your research and find out what is not only suitable for your photos, but what will preserve them for years to come.
Choosing the Correct Storage
There are a few characteristics to be aware of when choosing photo storage. The fastest and easiest method is if it passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). The word “archival” may not be standardized, but PAT determines the safety of photographic storage and display solutions. If a product has passed the PAT requirements, you’ll see it noted on the packaging or in the product description.
If you don’t see PAT anywhere on a product, don’t panic. There are a few ways to check and test products on your own.
The Gaylord Guide to Collections Care lists a few storage characteristics to look out for:
- Acidity & Alkalinity: This is measured on a pH scale of 0 – 14 with 0 being the most acidic and 14 having the most alkaline. Storage materials should have a pH in the 7 – 8.5 range where the acidity and alkalinity are most neutral.
- Acid-Free Paper: Acid-free paper (pH level of 7.0 or higher) should be used for storage enclosures. Gaylord’s Guide notes that acid-free materials can become acidic over time as it is exposed to impurities that can make it acidic. Some storage solutions or photo products may require additional protection from alkaline reserve or buffer to neutralize acids.
- Lignin-Free: Lignin is found in the cell walls of plants and trees. It can produce acids and darken paper if it is exposed to light and heat.
If you already have a product and you want to test its acidity level, you can use a pH pen to get a read on the material. This is an easy way to test your storage as well as your framing mats.
While there is a ton of science involved in photo storage materials, take comfort in knowing that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You have the PAT, and you have a few reliable conservation materials sites that you can look to for your storage solutions. University Products and Gaylord Archival are just two of the resources available to you, and their customer service teams are helpful in finding the proper storage for your photo products.
But first, you need to know what you have. Once you have that, you need to know what can and what cannot be stored together. The Library of Congress has a fantastic guide with photo storage recommendations, ideal storage conditions, and more.
There are a few common photo storage solutions that we always recommend to clients:
- Boxes: Museum boxes are a practical way to store most photos and documents. These boxes are tight fitting to keep the elements and bugs out and can be customized to fit your piece or collection. Boxes can include metal corners to reinforce the box, trays and compartments to store specific items, have a drop front to slide fragile pieces in and out, and more.
- Albums & Slipcovers: Slipcovers are the most important part of the album. They help protect images from dust, moisture, bugs, and more, and they provide support to the album itself. Slipcovers should be tight fitting around the album.
- Negative and Photo Storage: There many different types of negative and photo storage, including paper and plastic solutions. Sometimes, you can determine the proper storage based on activity (i.e. – plastic album pages for pieces that are continually handled vs. paper storage or boxes for items that are not frequently handled). Other times, you have to choose the storage that preserves the photographic piece effectively (i.e. – paper enclosures for glass negatives).
- Book Boxes: Custom-made photo boxes are game changing for valuable books, damaged books, and more. These boxes are custom-fit for the particular book and not only provide protection against the elements, but help support the book itself. Family Bibles, precious books, valuable books, and more can be stored using book boxes.
There are many, many other types of photo storage solutions available to you including: sleeves for newspaper, folders, interleaving materials, various boxes with various shapes and purposes, CD storage, and more. If you’re willing to go down the rabbit hole, you will find storage for almost every single type of photographic material you own.
Here are a few essential tips you should consider before sorting through your photos and prepping for photo storage:
- Wear cotton gloves. We cannot stress this enough. Cotton gloves protect your pieces from the oils on your hand which can cause damage to your photographs, slides, negatives, and more.
- Separate your items, and remove extraneous materials like rubber bands, paper clips, tape, post it notes, etc. Be careful when removing these items. If you start to cause damage, stop.
- Create a list with the pieces in each box, album, etc. Once a photo is in a storage solution like a museum box, you want to handle it as little as possible. Creating lists of your photographs will help you stay organized and save you the headache of having to sort through it all again.
- Use cotton or metal as temporary storage solutions. Cotton is a safe temporary solution for photographs. It helps protect the piece, but it doesn’t suffocate it. Metal cases (as long as it is dry) can also be used as temporary storage. We once had a client bring in a metal lunch box containing letters that were 100 years old, and they were in great condition.
Sorting, archiving and storing photos can be so much fun. It is important to understand what you have and how to properly archive it for future generations. To learn more about photo restoration, visit Getting Started: Photo Restoration.