The world’s best experts at storing photographs are archivists, people with up to a decade of education and hefty resources at their disposal. Although it’s unrealistic to try to store photographs exactly like an archivist would, here are some tips and tricks from the professional world that can be done at home.
Use proper envelopes or other storage materials. Archives have something called the Photographic Activity Test, a test to see whether or not any material interacts with photographs. Sounds complicated, right? Well, archivists have done enough PATs that the world already knows which materials pass and which materials fail. The best material for housing photographs are:
- non-acidified, lignin-free 100% cotton paper without any seams
- pure polyethylene or polyester, both of which are relatively stable polymers that will not degrade and thus not impact the photograph surface (at least, they will not degrade within the next few hundred years)
Use climate-controlled storage facilities. This might seem like a shameless plug on our part, but it is a major reason why archives are so good at preserving their materials. Most chemical processes happen more rapidly at higher temperatures and humidity, therefore an air-conditioned facility can greatly extend their lives. Extremely old archives in Europe even take this a step farther by placing archives in special vaults with near-freezing temperatures and 0% humidity. When it comes to climate control for paper materials, more is almost always better.
Digitize everything. There was an era in the 1990s and early 2000s when most archivists were dead-set against digitization. They were quick to point out that CDs and hard drives had even shorter lifespans than photographs. However, that era ended with the advent of cloud storage. Cloud storage makes it easy to backup photos in case any are damaged. However, it is important to note that cloud storage is not foolproof, and cases have already occurred of people losing treasured data. It is best to hold on to and protect photographs, even after they have been digitized.
There is a good reason why archives rarely have large windows. Sunlight fades color in almost everything, but it is especially hard on photographs. If you want to display a photograph on a wall that receives direct sunlight, make a copy to hang and keep the original out of harm’s way. The originals should be kept in the dark as much as possible.