The Very Abbreviated Version of the Boring, Technical Stuff
Let’s cut through all the scientific mumbo jumbo so you can learn what you need to know to keep your precious photos safe...without falling asleep.
When it comes to your photographs, the single-most important thing you need to do is protect them from the “Big 3” hazards: acid, lignin and PVC.
Acids have a pH of less than 7.0 and are produced during the paper making process. It is a chemical substance that will weaken paper and cloth by breaking down the fibers, causing them to brown and become brittle. Placing items with acid near your photographs will cause your photographs to change color over time. The acid will migrate from its source towards your photographs; a term called acid migration.
Most papers, unless they are printed on high quality paper, probably do contain acid. Don’t fret, if you are unsure than you can test them with a pH Testing Pen found in your local craft stores. If the test proves there is acid present, don’t use it anywhere near your photographs and when in doubt, leave it out. If you plan on using items containing acid in a photo album, you should keep them separate from your photographs by using page protectors or if it is practical, consider color photocopying them onto acid-free paper.
Lignin is an organic substance that is present in wood pulp. As the wood begins to deteriorate it becomes more and more acidic. Inexpensive papers such as newsprint contain high amounts of lignin and this is what contributes to the yellowing effect when newsprint is left in bright light. Lignin is probably the most destructive to your photographs.
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is a plastic that is very unstable and when it is combined with moisture in the air, it emits hydrochloric acid. Now that doesn’t sound good does it? Have you ever noticed where the print from a paper has adhered to the inside pocket of a plastic 3-ring binder or a page protector? Well, this is an example of PVC at work. Another tell-tale sign of PVC is the distinct plastic smell. Be absolutely sure if you are using albums with page protectors, that they are PVC-free.
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Don’t worry about remembering the details; just remember that acid, lignin and PVC will damage photographs. Be absolutely sure that you are using products that are acid-free, lignin-free and PVC-free. And, don’t take chances with products that state: Archival Safe. Though they may indeed be safe, this term is used rather loosely in the industry; and can’t be relied upon.
Acid migration is the ability of acid to move from an acidic material to a material of lesser or no acidity. A good example is the brown marks often seen on the pages of a book from a newspaper clipping placed inside.
10 Don’ts to Practice If You’re Serious about Saving Your Photos and Your Sanity
- Don't keep your photos in magnetic albums, even if they claim to be archival safe! (Not sure whether you've got a magnetic album? Read our "5 Tell-tale signs" in the section on magnetic albums and find out.)
- Don’t write on the back of your photos with a ballpoint pen or marker! (Unless of course, you'd like to see your writing emboss itself onto the front of your picture).
- Don’t store your photographs in the attic, garage or the basement!
- Don’t relegate your precious photographs to an acid-filled shoebox (where they will die a slow, agonizing death)!
- Don’t keep every picture! (Surprised you with that one, didn’t we?) Your photo collection will be much more meaningful if you keep only those photos that truly stir your emotions. And besides, if you learn to purge, then your process of organizing will be SO MUCH easier!
- Don’t leave your future descendants wondering who you were and what was important to you. (I mean come on, they’re going to need some explanation of that hairstyle you wore in the 80’s!)
- Don’t leave your one-of-a-kind photos in a frame where they may fade from the sun. (O.k. confession time....we learned this one the hard way.)
- Don't do something crazy in your attempts to organize your photos...You know, like spreading your entire photo collection out on the kitchen table. The only thing more depressing than an out-of-control photo collection is an out-of- control photo collection that is spread out all over your kitchen table when it's time to eat dinner.
- Don’t forget to get yourself into the family photo album! As the self-appointed family historian, we tend to be the "family photographer". Demand that someone take your picture occasionally! After all you deserve to be in the family album, don't you think?
- Don't beat yourself up about the state of your photo collection. When you start to feel guilty about what you haven't done, just remember the significance of what you already do each and every day - create joyful memories for your loved ones to cherish.