It can be nerve-wracking when you inherit a large collection of family photographs without the tools to preserve them for the future. Let us help you figure out how to assess and store your photographs in a way that works with your needs and expectations.
As with any guide – these are just suggestions. If you believe you have photographs of historical value or works of art – consult a conservator before you do anything. You can locate a conservator near you by using the AIC’s Find a Conservator tool.
6 Steps to Total Photo Organization
Assessing your collection before looking for storage options can help make sure you pick the best options for your photographs. Knowing what you have can help you find what you need. Even if you need to speak with our Customer Service Team - completing these five steps will help us help you more efficiently.
- Create an inventory list. You'll want to list out formats, sizes, quantities and condition. This will help you choose the best storage option for your specific collection.
- Separate damaged or fragile photos. You may want to store these a different way or even have a conservator take a look at them later.
- Don't attempt "first aid." Tapes and other adhesives can turn yellow and brittle causing additional damage.
- Assess the value of your photographs. This will help you in setting priorities and budget.
- Are the photographs unique?
- Do negatives exist to make duplicates?
- Are the prints valuable as works of art or historical documentation?
- Determine your resources. Being honest about what you have to work with as far as budget and storage space can help you find the best storage option that best fits your specific needs. Many family archivists just don't have the funds to do all the things they want to. Even museums have a budget.
- Make copies of unique or important images. High resolution scans will allow you print and share your photos while keeping the original safely stored away. Frame copies to decorate your home.
- Anticipate the frequency at which the photos will be handled. Are these photographs that you and others will want to view on a somewhat frequent basis? Or maybe you are looking to just store the images safely without any intention of viewing them frequently?
- Determine the time you have available to invest. Be honest. Are you short on time and just need to get the photos out of that disintegrating shoebox they've been in for 75 years? Or are you planning on thoroughly organizing and storing your collection?
While organizing, you may find other objects in with the photos such as buttons, pamphlets, newspaper clippings or even locks of hair. Include them in your inventory, but store them separately.
A Tale of 2 Storage Options
Use any combination of options below to keep your collection organized. Some photos may warrant an album, but the 1,000 pictures of your baby laying naked on a blanket may be better suited for more discreet storage.
Scrapbooks & Albums for Sharing and Viewing Photos
Scrapbooks and photo albums are perfect for organizing and storing your photos, but still being able to peruse and share them with others. The page protectors keep your photos safe from grubby hands and rough handling.
- Use your inventory list to choose the right scrapbook or album & pages.
- For photos that are all similar in size - choose prebound photo albums or create your own using archivally-safe plastic photo pocket pages stored in an album.
- If your photos vary in size or you want to add personalized notes, a scrapbook is a good fit. Use photo corners to affix photos to mounting pages. Write directly on the page using a pen with archival-quality ink. Then slip the finished page into a page protector.
Simple Storage Hideaway
If you simply have too many photos or maybe just photos you're sure no one really wants to see - you can keep them in a storage box, away from prying eyes. Unsuprisingly, you shouldn't just toss them all in the box, slap on the lid and shove it in the basement. There are some steps to make sure when you do want to look at those photos again, they are still in good condition.
- Primary enclosures! This step may seem unnecessary, but it will go a long way to keep your photos from damaging each other.
- If you want to be able to quickly locate photos, choose a clear plastic sleeve as your primary enclosure. This lets you see the image.
- Photos that are duplicates or images you don't need to see, you can use a paper enclosure.
- Paper enclosures will protect your photographs from damage caused by light. Plastic sleeves are clear and provide no light protection.
- Match your boxes to the photo sizes. Pick an appropriate size box. You don't want things sliding around, crunching up the corners of your photos.
- Know when to store it flat. Larger prints should be stored flat. If you have several different sizes you plan on storing in the same box, start with the largest at the bottom to avoid damaging the smaller photos.
- SO MANY PHOTOS! If you have a lot (over 1,000) of 4 x 6" prints, consider a high-capacity photo box. With four quadrents and archival-quality envelopes, you can organize up to 1,700 photos all in a single box!
- Let them live with you. Store your photos where you live. Keep them safe in closets, even under your bed. Your preference for a stable temperature with a steady humidity level is also excellent for your photographs.
Ready to go beyond the intro course? Check out our Guide to Collections Care—written by conservators—for graduate level info on preserving photographic materials, including prints, albums, negatives, discs and more.