Caring for Home Collections: Photographs and Scrapbooks

by Jennifer Steinhardt, NMAS Archivist

Did you spend the past almost-two years of lockdown procedures to go through all your belongings? If so, you’re not alone! There was dramatic increase in the number of people contacting the National Museum of the American Sailor about donating their family member’s naval materials. If you are looking for guidance on how you can care for your archival collections at home, you’ve come to the correct place!

First things first: just do the best that you can. While it would be amazing if everyone had the capabilities to store personal items the way the Vatican stores is millennia’s worth of archival materials, that is not realistic. Think about the Dead Sea Scrolls; they were preserved for thousands of years (in a cave!), because they were stored in a stable environment. The ideal environment for your home archive would be a dark room (a linen closet will suffice) with a temperature of under 70° Fahrenheit and between 30-50% humidity. If you are unable to keep those set ranges, try to keep everything consistent. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity cause your items to expand and contract, accelerating their deterioration.

A good example of personal storage.

Once you know where you’re going to store your items, you need to decide how to store them. For storage of physical photographs and paper, the best storage is in an archival folder in an archival box. Archival product websites offer buffered and unbuffered products. Buffered products often have calcium carbonate (good ol’ chalk) added to the pulp to raise the pH level of the paper to the alkaline side, making it non-acidic. Acids in paper are what cause it to discolor or become brittle over time, so storing most paper and photographs in buffered materials should help them stay preserved longer.

Buffered storage products, however, can have an adverse effect on certain materials, like wool, leather, and other items containing protein fibers. Some paper products such as blueprints should also be stored in unbuffered materials, as the buffering agent can cause the ink to deteriorate. If you’re unsure of the materials your items are comprised of, choose unbuffered.

A variety of boxes in the Museum’s collection storage.

Now that you have your storage area and materials, it is time to start organizing. As you go through your items, it is a good idea to write down all the details: who, what, where, when, why. If you want to write on the photograph itself, a sharpened pencil will do the trick. If not, you can always write the details on the folder/photo sleeve that houses the item.

Buffered storage products, however, can have an adverse effect on certain materials, like wool, leather, and other items containing protein fibers. Some paper products such as blueprints should also be stored in unbuffered materials, as the buffering agent can cause the ink to deteriorate. If you’re unsure of the materials your items are comprised of, choose unbuffered.

Now that you have your storage area and materials, it is time to start organizing. As you go through your items, it is a good idea to write down all the details: who, what, where, when, why. If you want to write on the photograph itself, a sharpened pencil will do the trick. If not, you can always write the details on the folder/photo sleeve that houses the item.

Now that you have your storage area and materials, it is time to start organizing. As you go through your items, it is a good idea to write down all the details: who, what, where, when, why. If you want to write on the photograph itself, a sharpened pencil will do the trick. If not, you can always write the details on the folder/photo sleeve that houses the item.

This guidance also applies to digital photograph collections. Every time you upload photographs from your phone or camera to your storage device, you should date the folder and add notes about where you were and what you were doing in the photographs. This step helps in the future when you go to look at your photographs and cannot remember everything pictured. You can  add information to the photographs themselves directly by right-clicking and choosing to add information in the “Properties” tab. Currently, most photographs are digital. While this medium is great for easy access, it is not so great for preservation. If possible, make copies of your photographs and store them in different locations, perhaps on an external hard drive stored in a fireproof safe and two different cloud services.

On a related note for preserving your photographs: scrapbooks. To care for scrapbooks, you must first make an important decision. Which is more important, the scrapbook as a whole, or the individual components?  If your answer is the scrapbook as a whole, interleave the pages with the most important items with non-acidic tissue paper (buffered or unbuffered depending on what is on the page). If you try to interleave the entire book, there is a good chance it will put too much strain on the binding and will eventually break. If the individual items are more important, take a photograph of the book as a whole, and then slowly take it apart. If items are stuck to the paper and will be destroyed if you try and separate them, cut the scrapbook’s pages close to the binding and preserve each page separately in a folder and box, just as if it were a document or photograph. Scrapbooks are great for memories, but are quite unstable. Some scrapbooks come include a small pocket in the back to store trinkets like movie and museum tickets.

When it comes to caring for collections at home, it is important to remember anything is better than nothing. If it becomes too daunting, speak to a museum, archive, or special collections library about options including donation. There, your treasures will be cared for by trained professionals with many tools at their disposal.

For information on how to donate to our collection, visit our website.

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