7 Tips for Preserving Old Photos

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A young girl enjoys ice cream in this well-preserved 1920s photo from the Missouri Valley Special Collection

Photographs are treasured items you want to hold on to for as long as possible. Careless handling, improper storage, and exposure to the elements can all ruin precious memories. Whether a 150-year-old Daguerrotype or a Kodak snapshot from a few years ago, all photos require care. Here are some tips to help make sure you don't lose these valuable artifacts.

The Kansas City Public Library is recognizing Preservation Week (April 24-30, 2011) with two special sessions on caring for your photos, both print and digital (because digital images can be lost, too).

This Saturday, April 16, at 11 a.m., Missouri Valley Special Collections Librarian Lucinda Adams leads a presentation on Caring for Print Photographs. The following Saturday, Digital Projects Manager Jordan Fields will lead a presentation on Preserving Digital Images. Both presentations are free; RSVP online to attend.

1. Maintain a Suitable Environment:

A suitable environment for photos is cool, dark, and dry, with an average temperate of 65 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity in the range of 30 to 40 percent. Basements and attics are often not temperature controlled, and environmental changes can cause the emulsion to buckle and crack, the colors to fade or shift, and the likelihood of mildew to increase. As many Kansas Citians know, basements tend to flood, too. Avoid exposure to direct sunlight at all costs.

2. Don’t Use Tape

If a photograph tears, don’t use tape to fix it. Instead, leave the tear unmended and place the photo in a clear polyethylene envelope to prevent further damage.


1944 photo from Kansas City's Guadalupe Center. (MVSC)


3. Put Down the Pen

Writing on the backs of photographs is a good way to identify family members, locations, the date, and so forth, but do so only in the margin and only with a no. 2 pencil. Never use an ink pen. And be careful not to push too hard when writing. Mechanical pencils usually work best.

4. Choose the Right Album

If you want to have easy access to your photos by keeping them in an album, first, avoid albums that use adhesives to keep the pictures in place. Look instead for an album that holds photos on a polyethylene page. Another method is to store photos in acid-free paper boxes with acid-free paper dividers.

5. Be Careful About Cleaning

It’s best not to attempt to clean photos, as images are produced by many different techniques, some of which require professional cleaning. Fortunately, most “dirt” that appears on photographs is not threatening to the survival of an image. When in doubt, consult a professional conservator.


This Civil War-era tintype was reproduced on a thin metal plate. (Missouri Valley)


6. Don’t Display Really Old Photos

Original 19th and early 20th century photos are best tucked away in a fireproof safe. If you want to show them off, scan them and make reproductions.

7. Don’t Wait for Future Generations

Start the identification process during preservation. Grab your mechanical pencil and gently write down everything you know on the backs of your photos, such as people, places, events, and dates.

For more information on caring for photos old and new, come to the 5th floor of the Central Library on Saturday, April 16, at 11 a.m. If you have questions, call the Missouri Valley Special Collections at 816.701.4500 or e-mail Lucinda Adams.