Preserving a Fragile Family Photograph in 3 Easy (Acid-Free!) Steps






Preserving a Fragile Family Photograph in 3 Easy (Acid-Free!) Steps:

          1)  Scanning

          2)  Identifying & Sharing

          3)  Acid-Free Storage & Display





First, a quick one-question pop quiz:

So, just WHAT is THIS???





If you answered “well, it’s clearly a WOODEN BOARD, with some numbers written on it.”

Yup, you’re CLOSE, but it is in fact MUCH MORE DANGEROUS(!) to you and your family than just an innocent piece of wood!



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The back (left) and front (right) of a really wonderful large albumen print of a family home from way back when, c.1880.
(Please click here to go to the Graphics Atlas website that will help you identify old photo processes,
and click
here to see our fully illustrated blog on Your HOME as a Family History & Genealogy Resource.)



Rather than a piece of wood, what we have here is a cardboard backing on which is mounted a FANTASTIC one-of-a-kind albumen print photograph of a family home / the family itself / the family horses…

…with some REAL PROBLEMS!

Read on, though, as we have 3 EASY STEPS to address these problems!






Yes, this large (7.5 x 9.5″ image on a 10 x 12″ mount), very cool(!!!) albumen print is mounted onto old-school cardboard that is definitely NOT acid-free, and to make matters worse it was framed—for over a century!—in a frame that had a WOOD BACKING.

Not to get all technical, but it is the “migration” of naturally-occurring acids, lignin (please click on either word for more information) and other nastiness in this wood backing that has “burned” itself onto the back of the print’s cardboard mount, leaving the recognizable wood pattern you see at the top of this blog (and yes, “migration” and “burned” are official terms!).




What’s more, while the photograph’s mount has a pleasing printed border (see red box in the pix above), the mount itself was made of a cheap 19th-century cardboard that, as mentioned, is definitely NOT acid-free.

Combined, the acids that are part of the cardboard itself / whatever unknown chemistry was in the 19th-century glue used to adhere the print to its mount / and the added nastiness that “migrated” from the wood backing has created a situation where this mount is now “brittle with age” (and now you know EXACTLY what that means!).



Yup, a textbook example of something that is “brittle with age.”
(Please click on the image to see our fully-illustrated blog on
Archival Definitions: Acid-Free / Buffered / Unbuffered.) 


The end result? The whole thing would crack and disintegrate if flexed or slightly bent (see pix above of damage that occurred years earlier).

Yet ALL IS NOT LOST, as there are 3 easy steps YOU can take if YOU have a photograph like this!

In fact, correctly addressing the archival needs of a fragile print like this will not only help it survive the NEXT 100 years (and beyond!), it will add SIGNIFICANT INTEREST and INFORMATION to the piece—and help it claim its IMPORTANT PLACE in your family’s history!





Preserving a Fragile Family Photograph in 3 Easy (Acid-Free!) Steps:

Step #1:  SCANNING



acid-freeScanning at home has never been easier, as many relatively inexpensive
desktop scanners come with everything you need to scan your family
photographs & documents yourself—including easy-to-use software.
(Please click on the image for more information on scanners from our friends at B&H Photo & Video.)



Scanning photographs such as this with a relatively inexpensive desktop scanner is the FIRST STEP in preserving one-of-a-kind family photographs.

If you don’t have access to a desktop scanner, well, no problem! The Association of Personal Photo Organizers (see pix below),  has a extensive roster of members, many of them likely near you, that can scan your photographs rather inexpensively. 



The Association of Personal Photo Organizers (APPO for short) is composed of hundreds of trained individuals who live all around the country
and will come to your home if you’d like to access your photo organizing, scanning & archival preservation needs. These folks are the real deal, and
they have an easy-to-use “Find an Organizer” function on their website (see red box above) to quickly and easily find an APPO member near you!
(Please click on the image to go to the APPO website. They’re wonderful people who know their stuff!)



So, SCANNING your photographs is the FIRST STEP in this process, as there are SIGNIFICANT benefits to working with such scans—not the least of which is your new ability to UNLOCK THE SECRETS that might otherwise be hidden in such treasures (see Step 2 below!).

These benefits include being able to:


     •  SAFELY HANDLE the scan—or prints & copies of the scan—rather than the fragile photograph itself

       ENLARGE portions of the scan to get a better sense of who’s who / what’s what in your photograph

       EMAIL (or print & send via snail-mail) portions of the scan to relatives for help in identifying people & places

       SHARE copies of the scan so that extended family members can include it in THEIR OWN family archives

     •  ARCHIVALLY PRESERVE the original in acid-free enclosures / acid-free boxes / archival mats & frames


And with that we’re on to the next easy step…





Preserving a Fragile Family Photograph in 3 Easy (Acid-Free!) Steps:






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With the image scanned, it’s easy to enlarge portions of it to study it in greater detail & to help in identifying who’s who.
(Please click on any image to see our fully-illustrated blog entitled American Family Archives: Your HOME as Family History & Genealogy Resource.)



Since there is now a SCAN of this old photo it is easy to enlarge sections of it (see pix above) to help identify who’s who / where’s where / when’s when / what’s what—WITHOUT fumbling around with a magnifying glass and risking further damage to the original (and quite fragile!) photo through inadvertent accidents or rough handling.



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I need help identifying who’s who and what’s what in this pix, so copies & enlargements of the scan were created to be emailed, or printed and sent via
to (left to right): Mom & Dad / Grandma & Grandpa / Aunt Zircron & Uncle Albatross / Cousin Igor / my sister Griselda / my brother Limbo Bob.
I also want each of these individuals to have a nice copy of this important family pix for THEIR OWN family archive. You get the picture (no pun intended).



Aside from the clear benefits of having a scan to enlarge in order to study details of the print, it is now also possible to send the scan around to extended family members for their input on who’s who, etc., and to SHARE copies of this photograph with others in the family (see pix above) so that they can add it to THEIR OWN family archives or genealogical research!

So, scanning is important—whether you do it yourself or send it out—as since this print is definitely NOT on an acid-free mount it is VERY delicate and needs to be studied & shared through other SAFER means = the scan!

And while we’re on the topic of this delicate and fragile original, the last step in this short overview covers things YOU can do to preserve such irreplaceable photographs (and the prints & copies you make, too!)—archival storage & display.





Preserving a Fragile Family Photograph in 3 Easy (Acid-Free!) Steps:

Step #3:  Acid-Free Storage & Presentation



With your scans complete, which you either did yourself or with help from an APPO member, it’s time to ARCHIVALLY store or mat & frame this fragile old photograph.



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acid-freeLeft to Right: 1. the fragile original is placed on a sheet of 2-ply acid-free Museum Board for additional structural stability, and placed in a Crystal Clear Bag.
2. the print & its Museum Board backing is flipped over / the adhesive release strip on the right is removed / the bag’s re-sealable(!) lip is sealed closed.
3. the print in its bag is now archivally protected & can be handled WITHOUT touching the actual print, while the re-sealable bag can be opened at any time.


Prints such as this can be placed in archival Polyethylene Bags or in Crystal Clear Bags that have a re-sealable lip, as shown above. An optional sheet of 2-ply acid-free Museum Board was added to this particular configuration in order to give the print and its fragile backing board an additional level of structural support & rigidity. This is particularly important with such “delicate” images.



acid-freeThe print, in its protective bag, placed in a 100% acid-free Drop Front Box along with other similarly-sized images. The “drop front” feature
in the lower right quadrant of this image allows you to easily remove the print WITHOUT having to “dig it out,” which might cause damage.
(Please click on the image for more information, and click here to see our short video on Drop Front Boxes.)



While storing the original print in an acid-free box is an excellent archival solution, you may want a really wonderful photograph like this matted, framed, and hung on the wall in order to be enjoyed and shared every day!

This, too, can be easily accomplished (all archivally!), and by “doing-it-yourself” you can save all sorts of time & $$$.



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Left to Right: 1. the FREE Mat Board Sample Kit has examples of all the different colors of 100% acid-free mat boards & backing boards available
2. using this free kit you can also choose what thickness of mat board will best suit your needs.
3. with our Custom Mat Cutting service we can cut ANY type and size of mat you’d like, after which we assemble the mat and its backing by hand
4. self-adhesive Mounting Corners, available in different sizes, make mounting photos & artwork—old & new—both easy & archivally safe!
(Please click on each image for more information, and click here for our fully-illustrated blogs on Matting.)

By ordering a FREE Mat Board Sample Kit (only $2 bucks for postage) you can lay each sample next to your photograph or artwork in order to decide which color and thickness will best suit your needs (click here to see our fully-illustrated blog on Choosing Mat Board Color & Thickness).

By filling out our easy-to-use Custom Mat Cutting Template all the mat border size calculations are done for you (click here for an explanation on how all this works), and shortly thereafter a museum-quality mat arrives at your door ready to be used to to enhance any type of images you have!



acid-freeIf you choose to mat and frame any particular photograph or artwork, the last step is deciding
what type of frame & frame color would best enhance your piece and match your tastes & decor.

(Please click on the image for more information.)



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Both Metal Frames and Gallery 12 Wood Frames are available in different colors, and go together easily and quickly with just a screwdriver.
(Please click on each image for more information, and click here for our short video on Metal Frames, and here for our video on Gallery 12 Wood Frames.)



So, with the fragile original carefully preserved in whichever acid-free enclosure or mat & frame you’d like, a quick observation that will circle us back to the SCANS you’ve made:



acid-freeThe prints & copies made from scans should ALSO be archivally stored. High quality (yet affordable!) 3-ring Print Storage Pages
offer both easy access to your printed scans & copies and the peace-of-mind that comes with long-term acid-free protection.
(Please click on the image for more information.)

Yes, even the color or black & white prints that are made from scans of original old photographs should be cared for correctly, in this case in archival 3-ring Print Storage Pages (see pix above and below).

Some 3-ring pages available at office supply stores are very cheaply made and contain chemicals that can cause “image transfer” (the image sticks to the page) or the dreaded chemical “migration” (remember that phenomenon from the the top of this blog?) that can damage your prints & copies, so NEVER use those cheaply made types of pages!

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Archival / acid-free binders come in a variety of styles to match your budget, style & decor.
(Please click on each image for more information.)

With the prints & copies that have been made from your scans safely (and accessibly!) nestled in protective pages, make sure that the binders you’re storing them in offer the SAME level of archival / acid-free security (see pix above).



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(Please click on each image for more information.)



So, in closing, whichever way you choose to preserve your irreplaceable (and often quite fragile!) originals, whether in acid-free enclosures & boxes or in archival mats & frames, by following the 3 easy steps described above—SCANNING / IDENTIFYING & SHARING / ARCHIVAL STORAGE & DISPLAY—your photographs and artwork will be safe, easily shared, and well-protected for generations to come!






Contact Us

If you have any additional questions on preserving your old photos and anything else in your collection, or would you like more information on any of our museum-quality archival storage and presentation materials, please contact us here at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help with any archiving, storage, or presentation questions you may have.

We would also like to encourage you to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and our large selection of informative and crisply-illustrated (and often humorous!) blogs for up-to-the-minute information, Archival Solutions of the Week (take a look at this archive for more info!), and stories of interest. Likewise, our exclusive short videos illustrate many of the archival products and procedures that you may wish to “see in action,” so please take a look!