Saving Your Family Albums, by Maureen Taylor

A reader expressed concerns about her twentieth-century black and white pictures:

“I have my grandmother’s photo albums and some family pictures. The albums are black construction paper sandwiched between heavy black cardboard and held together by a string.”

Some of you may be nodding your head in agreement, murmuring, “I’ve got one of those.” In this case the images date from 1918 through the 1930s. She wonders what to do. She’d love to move the images to another album but then she’d lose the captions.

These albums present multiple issues. First there is the construction of the albums. The pages and the covers are made with acidic paper and the creator of the album used glue to affix the images to the page. The other problem is that the black paper may not be color-fast which mean if these pages ever got wet the color would leak out of the paper.

Back in the 1920s, few were concerned about the longevity of pictures. At that time the majority of nineteenth-century images in family collections were holding up pretty well. Daguerreotypes still sparkled in their cases, paper prints hadn’t yet become yellow and tintypes remained pristine. What was there to worry about? It was the color disaster of the 1960s (when color prints began to shift colors and fade away) that brought to everyone’s mind the future of their precious family pictures.

The acidic papers in these albums get brittle with time. The adhesive begins to seep through the print staining the image on the front and making it nearly impossible to remove pictures from the pages.

Removing images from albums is not advised. You want to retain the original order of the prints and not lose any information. Albums are put together by an individual in a particular order for a specific reason that often tells a family history story. Plus you don’t want to lose the captions.
There are things that you can do to save these albums! The simplest solution is to wrap the whole album in a piece of unbleached muslin and store it in an acid and lignin free box. That way you won’t lose any pieces.

Another option is to interleave the pages with either thin polyester sheets (sold in specialty shop like Light Impressions or you can use acid- and lignin-free paper available in stationery and art supply shops. The biggest problem with this method is that added volume may break the binding of the album.

Don’t remove the pictures; scan them instead. If you try to take them off the page, it’s highly likely that you’ll tear the images when trying to remove them. Even if you use a product for dissolving adhesive, there could be unforeseen problems. Instead, invest in an inexpensive scanner and copy each of the pages. Print out the images on a photo printer using acid- and lignin-free paper and high quality inks such as Epson’s Durabrite, HP’s Pixma, and Canon’s Vivera. You can also print out the captions. Then, reassemble images and captions in an acid and lignin album and wrap the original as mentioned above. You can then rest easy knowing that this family history treasure isn’t being subjected to any more handling.

You can even add your own comments to the new album making it a multi-generational genealogical document, and since you have scans, you’ll be able to make duplicates for other interested family members.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Maureen Taylor is The Photo Detective at Her work on identifying family photographs was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Check out the calendar of events on her blog to see when she’s visiting your area. Don’t forget to bring your questions!

27 thoughts on “Saving Your Family Albums, by Maureen Taylor

  1. I have just recently scanned 3 photo albums that had belonged to my aunt, lent to me by my cousin.I ran into the same problem of the pictures being glued into the albums.I simply removed the pages one at a time and scanned them.That way I was able to save the look of the page and at the same time can crop out and save each photo for individual printing for a scrap book I am putting together for our family reunion.I was also then able to make a photo cd for my cousin who is losing her eyesite.She is able to play them on her DVD player where they are large enough for her to see.

  2. You stated Canon’s Vivera ink…HP produces Vivera ink, not Canon….very simple mistake. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  3. When I recieved my Dad’s photo albums from the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s, we went through them one picture at a time. Since he has dementia, his short-term memories are gone, but his long-term memory is intact. Seeing the pictures again awoke some long dormant stories within him and we had several delightful afternoons talking about his adventures when he was young. Some of the stories I had heard a million times, but he also told me stories I had never heard before..and neither had my Mother!

    At the same time, he also gave me his Mother’s photo albums. They date back to the turn of the last century, all the way up to about 1950. Even though one of these albums was complied before he was born, he was able to identify some of the people in the album. I picked his brain for hours, because these photos had not been captioned by my Grandmother. He couldn’t tell me who every single person was, but he was able to tell me a great deal.

    My advice, besides preserving these treasures, is to ask questions!

  4. Linda is correct as I have a Canon Pixma. I got a new all-in-one printer just before Christmas. It is the Kodak Easyshare 5300. It prints “lab quality” prints for less money than other printers. Black ink cartridge is $9.99 and the 5-ink Color cartridge is $14.99. You can save a few cents if you shop Wal-Mart. The printers are available at Best Buy and at a lower price if you order from Kodak ( I am not connected with Kodak in any way but love being able to print more at less cost.

  5. Excellent article. Thank you!

    Scanning pages or photocopying each page or photo with a digital or film camera (preferably a SLR) provides lasting images. Captions are very important and need be preserved.

  6. Ronald, please tell more about a SLR camera. Is that a particular kind of 16 mm? Thanks!

  7. Hi, Great article . It has already helped me . I have saved photo’s of my great grand parent’s and their children from 1898 up to the 1970’s . From that family there is only one grandson left. There is one of my great uncle in his WW 1 Army uniform , he was killed in action in France in 1919 . Again thank’s for a great article , it helped this 76 year old dumb Frenchman . Ed Perreault

  8. Two things, a comment & a question.

    First years ago we were advised archivally to disassemble the album pages from the covers and put each page into an archivally inert transparent sleeve. Then store everything in an acid free box.

    Second what do you do with those modern albums where the pictures are held in place by transparent sheets that cover the entire page? Photocopying the pages would record the placement of pictures etc. but what then? You can’t leave them in the album as it will destroy them. Do you make a new archival album of some sort with the original pictures etc.?

  9. Answer to my own question. SLR (single lens reflex)tech. so that the same image is in the view finder and film lens.

  10. You did not mention the rephotographing the whole album. If you don’t have a camera that will focus in close enough, equiptment may be rented at some photo stores. A film camera will then give you a new set of negatives to have for reprints to give to family. You can use a filter matching any color that the picture is turning to such as light yellow for yellowing pictures. Also rephotograph old fadeing color pix in black and white. They will last longer. If using a digital camera. Save the media card for printing on your printer or or PC or one that will accept plugging in a card or the camera itself. This is not infringing on any copyright as it is to be used for educational perposes for yourself or family and not used for resale.. You might also want to scan the photos onto a cd for future printing out.

  11. A special thanks for types of archival paper and ink. How about the best CD’s for archival use?

  12. It’s tempting to remove photos from albums with black pages, but in this case the cure is worse than the disease. If you decide to give interleaving a try, there are acid free and buffered tissue papers that might help. These sheets are much thinner than paper or polyester and therefore add less bulk.

    On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to remove photos from those horrible sticky magnetic albums that were popular in the 70s and 80s. That’s a rescue I recommend. There is a simple tool called a microspatula that is very helpful. It’s not a cutting tool, just a gentle separator. The last thing you want to do it grab a corner and pull…that can lead to tearing or cracked emulsion.

    @JAN — Old photos are a wonderful way to make visits with dementia patients more enjoyable for everyone. It’s therapy, but not in the sense that it will change your dad’s disease. It’s therapy because it makes interacting so much more pleasant. I’m so glad you discovered this!

    -Sally J.
    The Practical Archivist

  13. After spending several weeks scanning pictures from several old albums, my grandmother passed away. A number of the pictures were of my grandmother through the years, including her wedding photo.

    I had scanned each album to a seperate folders & attmepted to name each by the page they appeared & the sequence on the page. Not having had a chance to organize my new collection any further, and at the time I was still using win98 which didn’t give me thumbnail previews like WinXp, I had trouble locating which photo’s I wanted to print or have printed

    I burned each folders contents to a CD & took to my local Walgreens. They printed up for me the small cards with the thumbnail pictures, which included the name I’d give each photo for a very reasonable cost. Since my eyes aren’t what they used to be, I then scanned each set of thumbnails & enlarged enough to print out on an 8 x 11 sheet of paper. I could then look at each sheet & determine which pictures I wanted to use & locate where on my HD the image was located.

    Rather than printing myself, I had them printed. It seems to be cheaper to have them done with the cost of ink for my printer, esp. when there are more than a few.

  14. I am pretty much at a loss at how to properly scan all of my older photos. Specifically, what resolution to use. Wouldn’t I want a higher resolution? Also, what should one look for in a CD for archival use? How can I be pretty sure I am doing this project right the first time?

  15. In response to Susan, comment 15: Higher resolutions are definitely better, at least to a point. Higher resolution scans will allow you to print better quality (less grainy) pictures later. The higher the resolution, the more you can enlarge the picture without making it grainy or pixelated. If you want to copy individuals out of a group shot and enlarge them, you’ll definitely want a higher resolution than if you just plan to print the group shot as is. If you’re not sure what use you plan for the photo, go for a higher resolution because you can always convert the image to a lower resolution later but you can’t increase the resolution without rescanning the picture, and you may not have the picture available when the time comes.

    The minimum resolution I’d recommend for most scanning is 300 DPI (dots per inch). If you want to be able to enlarge the picture, use a higher DPI like 1200 even 4800. Of course, higher resolutions result in larger files, so you may have to make a trade off, depending on your disk space. I frequently scan at my scanner’s highest resolution, burn those images to a CD or DVD, and then make a lower resolution copy to keep on the PC, knowing I can go to the CD or DVD if I need the higher resolution copy. That also ensures I have a copy in case my hard disk ever crashes.

  16. I did a whole different approach; first, remove any pictures that are in the ‘magnetic’ albums, immediately! Run a table knife, very gently, and wiggle it back and forth gently until the adhesive lets go. I managed this, and did not damage a single picture.
    Then, I bought a file box, with tabbed files. I labeled them
    “pre-1900″ then 1901-1920, 1921-1938, etc. After my birth in 1938, I made a folder for every year, and then filed all of them by year. After that, I went through and RE-filed it by month within that folder.
    Then I bought acid free, light eggshell-colored cardboard, very thin. I mounted all photos on that with acid free little tabs with glue on them, light glue. Made everything in chronological order, and added new pages as I got more info.
    I bought acid free three-hole punched pages from 20th Century Plastics, in LA. Plastics, plus albums. I’m up to six! All with 3” spines. As I went on, I got more data, including after he passed, my father’s military information, including his Honorable Discharge.
    The first album ended with my graduation and engagement announcement, the next started with my wedding license and photos. And it went on. I did not buy any album pages with pockets; I had too many items of odd sizes. Also, had the good fortune to have people in my genealogy “family” to send me headlines about newsworthy events in my family’s lives. It tells quite a story, and is far more interesting than “birth, marriage, death’ statistics.
    I had a stroke of good luck – one of my genealogy “cuzn’s has
    Photoshop, and has ‘salvaged’ an incredible number of photos for the family members – those which faded, just as you said, in the 60’s, and even repairing damage to the oldest photos.
    Each of my children and grandchildren will receive a printed out copy of the albums – and new, empty ones so they can add their data in as it happens, or as it coincides with photos from the original albums. (Best surprise? I’m finally having all those slides printed! I have pictures of them, which they’ve never seen, and probably have forgotten.) My family also agreed on a huge cost saving tactic; Each of us will print out one copy of each new photo, and scan and mail them to our family members – then they print out the ones they want.
    One problem with scannig the entire page is that my cousin needs “all the pixels’ he can get in order to correct damaged photos. I just copy any titles onto the eggshell-covered backgrounds. Once all that has been repaired, THEN I scan and
    print out the whole page – after the pics have been restored.
    Good luck!

  17. Reading about these albums makes me sorry we didn’t write down the stories that went along with the albums while Mother was alive. My sister and I have here album, on black paper with white ink, with pictures from the 1910’s-1930’s. Lots of first names only. Tape record or write down all the conversations you have over these albums as dementia and senility take over. You won’t be sorry for the time you took.

  18. An “inexpensive” scanner will not do what your article said. My $100 scanner will not. I suppose one that will do what you said would cost several hundred dollars of hearly $1000.
    Roy L. Howard

  19. Roy (comment 18): I have an Epson Perfection 2480 I bought a couple of years ago that cost less than $100 and it will scan up to 12,800 resolution. I usually scan at 300dpi in TIFF format, then I can make JPEG images to email to relatives or put on the web.

    A question: What resolution should I use for scanning if the picture is to be printed in a book? I’ve gotten several different answers from several sources. I’m about to start a scanning project and I won’t be able to keep the photographs after scanning, so I want to make sure they’re scanned at a high enough resolution.

  20. I have MY photo albumn ca. 1930’s where pictures were put in with little black angles glued to the pages, so the picture was completely removable. As a matter of fact, I’ve removed a few, and don’t want the bother of trying to put the picture back into those little black angles.

  21. Responding to Comment 13, paragraph 3, picture therapy for Dementia patients: My dear aunt, who had Alzhiemer’s, came to live with me and I thought the old family pictures would be a comforting thing for her, but they only made her cry because she couldn’t remember who they were and knew she should be able to identify them. Very sad because she was the one who collected and saved all the family clipping and photos…boxes and boxes. . .

  22. If you are looking at scanning the photo albums, I invite you to join a group of us family historians and family archivists who are doing the same in what we call Scanfest, a virtual quilting bee, so to speak.

    We meet online the last Sunday of each month from 11 AM to 2 PM, Pacific Time, except during the holidays, and use instant messaging through Windows Live Messenger to chat with each other while we scan our photo albums, marriage certificates, and other documents and ephemera from our ancestries.

    If you would like to join us (scanning can be dull, boring, and hard to get motivated to start, after all!) to make this task a little more fun, please read the information on how to do that on my genealogy blog here:

    Miriam Robbins Midkiff
    Spokane, Washington, USA

  23. I, too, have many, many photographs to scan as well as photograph albums and the task seems to be rather daunting. I have learned how to scan photos on my Epson Perfection 3170 photo scanner. When my daughter (my personal computer expert) was home at Christmas, she showed me the best way to scan slides — all of which work very well on this scanner. So I now have a very large project for the coming winter months.

    I have also just completed the task of removing photos from those magnetic albums. In addition, I have integrated my mother’s photographs with mine and am in the process of labeling/dating them.

    I’ve run into a problem, though, with my Polaroid pictures. They are coming apart at the edges. Where the edges are turned to the back and glued in place, that glue has apparently dried out. Does anyone have a solution for this?

  24. We have recently set up a service that scans old photos, slides, negatives, video and cine film. We then load them onto a memory card for a digital frame. We find that this is most helpful (and medically proven) for dementia sufferers as this can play repeatedly beside the bed. In nursing homes this has an added benefit for the carers as this one frame can replace numerous – less dust and clutter!

  25. OK, what IS the best way to construct an album? I always liked the ‘magnetic’ pages because they would accommodate all the varied sizes of photos. I hate the ‘one size fits all’ pocket type of plastic page. I’ve separated all the photos I’ve collected into albums by family name, and roughly by date, when I can determine it.

  26. I recently purchased an Epson Perfection V500 for $250. Not only is it easy to use (3 settings, and comes with Digital ICE) and a quality scanner (the LCD lamp is wonderful – no fogging on the glass bed), but it also scans negatives. My husband inherited dozens of old negatives from the 1920s through the 1960s, and I have been elated to see the results.

    I would also recommend purchasing the Adobe Photoshop Program (I have 5.0) for organizing and tagging those photos. It’s so easy to use, and also comes with a super editing program.

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