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ShipLibrary Blog

How to Take Care of Your Physical Photos

by Heather Glasby on 2022-10-17T08:32:41-04:00 | Comments

Today’s post was written by Archives Student Volunteer Alisha Rivera.


During the heart of lockdown, people all over the world were looking for ways to distract themselves. While celebrities were busy singing “Imagine” to lift our spirits, the rest of us turned to sourdough bread recipes, new hobbies, and binge watching Tiger King on Netflix. Some of you were probably bored enough to organize and clean out your family home. In the process you may have found family treasures like diaries, clothes, beloved trinkets, and photos. As we slowly begin to re-enter society after the pandemic, you’re now wondering how you should take care of some of these artifacts. 

            Although all these objects left behind are important, one of the most fragile items of any family history are photographs. We, at the Ezra Lehman Archives & Special Collections, wanted to give you a “how to” guide on how to preserve and care for any physical photos that you may have stumbled across or that you may have even created yourselves. 


            Learning how to handle photographs is the bedrock for learning how to take care of a collection. Make sure you’re working on a surface that is flat, clean, and clear from all other objects. Little things that seem innocuous on the surface, can actually be extremely damaging to a photograph. Touching the image surface of a photo with your bare hands could transfer the natural oils of the skin onto the image. Dirt, food, and drinks that can spill on or near the photograph can alter the integrity of the image. Any of these can easily cause a chemical reaction with the chemical process used to create the original image. 

            The best way to handle a photograph collection is by using lint-free cotton gloves or nitrile gloves. If these aren’t immediately available to you, the best way to handle and move a photograph is to make sure your hands are thoroughly washed. Then carefully hold the edges of the photograph using both hands. 


            Humidity and heat are two environmental factors you want to keep in mind when picking a room to store your photos. These are breeding grounds for mold and mildew causing irreparable damage to your photos. Light can also cause a problem with your photographs. Prolonged exposure to light can mess with the chemistry of the photo and cause any photographic image to fade over time. When it comes to storing your photographs, you want to pick a cool, dark room that is relatively free of humidity. 

Once you find the perfect environmental setting to store your photographs, you’ll want to find a photo-safe box or archival box to place the actual photos in. A “Photo-safe” is a box that is acid-free and free of adhesives and plastics. Photo-safe and archival boxes keep photos safe from rodents and bugs and is another layer of protection against mold and mildew. These types of boxes are easy to find with a quick google search. 

Before placing your photos into your photo-safe or archival boxes, you’ll want to lay them in paper folders or pockets, or a plastic sleeve. In the archives, most of our photos are stored in both plastic sleeves and/or paper folders. Plastic sleeves can be expensive when you have a large collection, and we only use them for the most vulnerable photo pieces in the archives. But remember, all these items should be acid and chemical free before using them to store your photos. 

Finally, if you have any photos that are older and kept in cases or frames, such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, you’ll want to store them in their original casings. This is because most photographers from the time period used adhesives to keep the photos in place. Any attempt to take them out of their original cases could cause irreparable damage to the photos. 

But wait! Photographs are meant to be displayed. Why would we want to keep them hidden in boxes? It’s understandable that you would want to showcase your photos, especially if they have sentimental value to them. These are steps to ensure the longevity of your photos, but there are additional steps for displaying photos if that is your goal.

Framing Photos for Display

            There are a few things to remember when framing your photos for display. Remember, exposure to light shortens the lifespan of photographs so displaying photos in a dimly lit room goes a long way in terms of the lifespan of a photo. Another option is to use an ultraviolet filter, such as ultraviolet filter framing glass or sheets, to keep the exposure to light at a minimum. 

Mounting and matting your photos before framing are essential to ensuring that your photos stay intact. Mounting or matting is the extra layer of cotton boarding that sits between the photo and the glass of the frame. This is an important step of displaying photographs because, if for some reason you decide to remove the photo from the frame for storage, it prevents the photo from getting stuck on the glass of the frame. Photos that become stuck on frames can be difficult to remove while also keeping the photo in one piece. Lastly, if you are looking to display any unique, valuable, or older photos, the best practice is to try to duplicate these items so that the original copies are preserved.

If you want more information about how to handle your photographs with care The National Archives and the Library of Congress both have even more detailed information about photograph preservation. If you would like a more hands-on approach, the Ezra Lehman Archives and Special Collections is hosting a two-part workshop on how to handle your photographs on October 6 and 13 from 2-3pm. 

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