Between the Covers: Family Photo Albums, by Maureen Taylor

In response to a question submitted by a reader I wrote a column in January on saving family photo albums. Many people commented on the piece, asked questions, and talked about albums they have in their families. Thank you for sharing. Here are the answers to your queries and a few additional comments from me.

Removing Photographs from Magnetic Albums
Ginger wanted to know what to do about magnetic albums. You probably own several. I know I do. They were quite popular in the 1970s and for unknown reasons continue to be commonly available. Perhaps it’s the price. These magnetic albums with their sticky pages and plastic overlays are often on sale. Pay less today but more tomorrow isn’t a real adage, but it applies to these destructive albums. Once you place your pictures in a magnetic album you’re in trouble. Over time the glue seeps through causing stripes of discoloration, making it almost impossible to remove images from the pages. So what’s a frustrated photo genealogist to do?

Sally, the Practical Archivist suggested using a microspatula for gently removing images from magnetic albums. These handy inexpensive devices sell for around $4.00 and are available from library suppliers like Brodart.

In a workshop I attended, a photo conservator suggested using thin unwaxed dental floss to carefully remove photos from sticky pages. But be very gentle. It is possible to tear pictures using this method. Slide the floss under the edge of the image and move it slowly to try to lift the image away from the glue.

Susan asked about scanning resolutions for older pictures and creating CDs.

I scan my pictures at 100 percent (the same size as the original), in full color (even if they are black and white) at 600 dpi, and store them as Tiff files. These are large files so instead of storing everything on my hard drive I back them up using a portable hard drive. You can use DVDs or CDs but while manufacturers are improving the stability and longevity of these discs, they don’t last forever. Of course having them last 100 years isn’t really an issue because we probably won’t be able to play them back by then! (If you are scanning for publishing purposes, 300 dpi JPEGs are sufficient; for the Web, 72 dpi is standard.)

Record Photo Memories
Many of you wrote about how you used photo albums to trigger memories in older relatives. Several folks reminded us to record those spontaneous photo memories or to link the pictures with the spoken captions. While currently there aren’t any albums on the market that allow you to record voices and display pictures, keep watching for them. I hear they are in development.

Digital ICE
Here’s one more tip: Newer scanners come with Digital ICE, which automatically corrects minor imperfections in a scanned image. I suggest using the professional mode rather than the automatic settings to keep the damage visible. You can always remove those scratches later using photo editing software.

Keep posting those questions in the comments section below. I want to hear your concerns about caring for family treasures.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Maureen Taylor writes about family photographs and genealogy. Her work recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Check out her photo of the month at Maureen’s newest publication, Capturing Memories: Your Family History in Photographs is now available in the Ancestry Store.

31 thoughts on “Between the Covers: Family Photo Albums, by Maureen Taylor

  1. I recently received a sale flyer from “Archiver’s” store which contained a product that they say will remove photos safely from the magnetic albums – it’s called “Undu” and is used to remove glue on stickers. It supposedly never leaves a residue, either. Have you tried this product?

  2. I have recently received a USB flash drive (2 GB capacity) and am excited about the portability of my photos and copies of census records; however I have not read anything about their reliability for long term storage. I use an offsite backup company for saving my important photos and documents, but the USB drives cannot be backed up.

    Could you comment on this.

    Thanks very much!

  3. The perfect way to remove pictures from a “magnetic” album is to use a product called Undo. You can buy it at Walmart, etc. It has an attached spatula-type top on it that you can use to lift the photos out after putting a few drops around your picture. This product does not hurt your photos at all. I’ve used it to remove fingerprints also. Great product!!

  4. I use a hair dryer to remove pictures from magnetic albums. The heat loosens the glue and you can most often pull the picture off the page. You may not want to use this technique for valuable pictures, but I found it worked for pictures from my youth.

  5. We have two photo albums of my husband’s mothers. some of the pictures are 100 years old. She GLUED the picture to the black pages. Then years later his sister tore out some of the pictures to put in those magnetic albums. To give to us.
    What do I do with the pictures on the black pages? Some have pictures on both sides.
    Thanks Maria

  6. I was recently given a family album that belonged to my paternal great grandmother. Out of the entire album, only 2 pictures are identified. Do you have any suggestions on finding the names of the people in the pictures. Almost all of the pictures are formal photography studio pictures. There are also a few tintypes as well. Thanks for any help you can give me.

  7. I have found 2 photo albums of my mother’s family. They are glued down on black construction paper.Many are cut pics glued to one sheet & on both sides.They are priceless to me,taken during WW1 thru the 1930. Please some one help! every day they getting worse

  8. I have a family photo album from 1864. The pages are very brittle and falling apart as it suffered smoke damage from an apartment fire next door to my grandparents when they were in possession of it. The album is the kind with thick heavy pages which have slots for inserting the photos. Some of the photos slide out very easily, others are quite stuck in. My question is, should I just go ahead and remove the photos, cataloging as I go (some have writing on the back, others do not), and not worry about further damage to the album? With so many torn pages and photo slots, is there any reason to try to preserve what remains of the album itself? I would really like to remove all the photos in order to see what is written on the backs, scan them, and save them in a more safe and long-lasting way. Do you have suggestions for cataloging and saving the photos after removal from the album? Any helpful advice would be appreciated.

  9. Scaning old photos from an unlabeled album. I can identify and comment on most of the individuals and locations. I am the only one that can do so. Simply put, I have transfered an unlabeled photo album to an unlabeled CD. An unlabeled CD is as worthless as an unlabeled album! Is there a way to attach a permanent file to each image? Something like writting on the back of each picture. Comments that would stay with the image when I transfer to backup.

  10. I restore textiles-old quilts, laces, crochet etc. The quiltt world recently found out storing textiles in a cedar chest touching the wood sides is NOT good. When you take out your items they often have tiny brown spots on them, and you thought you put them up clean. ALSO- one must not wash quilts in an agitator washing machine while it is agitating. You can safely wash them in the machine by hand plunging them(and it hurts your nuckles, so convert a commode plunger for this use), then spin out the water, fill and plunge to rinse, spin and plunge until is no longer sudsy.Reach under/gather quilt in your arms to remove. Bring up your quilt in as big a piece as you can so as not to strain the fabrics/stitching. Gently shake out the wrinkles and dry on warm to a damp dry, take out and spread on a bed in a room with good ventilation to finish drying.

  11. Your “record photo memories” reminded me that I was lucky enough to go through all my mother-in-law’s family photographs before she died. I set up my video movie camera on a tripod, and held up each photograph to the lens and asked questions. If I was able to write on the back of the photograph with pencil, I did, if not I attached a “sticky note” with the important information on it. We sat down every Sunday for weeks going through her albums and loose photographs. Besides having a wonderful time visiting with her, I have memories that were triggered by the photographs and her voice telling the stories. I can now go through all those pictures and know who were family and who were friends. The opportunity of sharing that wealth of information with the rest of the family in a variety of ways is now also available.

  12. Great article. Thank you. My question is this: If you save your genealogy records on cd’s to distribute to family members, will they be able to open photos if they don’t have the same photo software you used? (I found that my relatives were unable to open attachments of Family Tree Maker trees. I had to print them out and send them by snail mail.) Thank you.

  13. I have learned several new things from reading the article and the comments sent in by others. These are SO helpful me. There have been times when I didn’t even know that I needed to ask a question. Reading articles and comments like these are eye openers. Thank you very much Maureen Taylor and all of the comment contributors who have shared their very valuable tips and resources.

  14. I have a professionally done photo from the 1930s, mounted on a 12″ x 14″ wooden board with an inlaid wood border. The finish material (shellac or varnish) is darkened and has many deep cracks, mainly over the 7 1/4″ x 9 1/2″ photo. Any suggestions on how to restore this family treasure? It’s of my father in his early 20s, wearing his new Army uniform as a medical officer for the CCC (Civilian Conservtion Corps). There is a sticker on the back of the mounting board with the inscription: Clark-Wood Inlay, CLARWOOD, Memphis, Tennessee, Liquid Proof, wash with soap and water. I hope you can give me some leads, as the finish is staarting to flake off, leaving some tiny white spots on this otherwise dark finish. If restoration is impractical, would you recommend scanning or taking a photo of this mounted picture for possibly saving the image? I don’t know who else to ask and hope you can offer some suggestions. I’ve been trying to keep the photo out of light and protecting the surface, but I think it will be gone in just a few years. Many thanks, Allana

  15. I would like resource for help in scanning old letters. I scanned my father-inh-law’s WW I letters and took several passes and variations of contrast, darkness etc before they became readable enough to publish is a little book for relatives for Christmsa. There are lots more letters to do and I haven’t learned what to try first and what doesn’t help.
    Peace, Rosemary Mixon Snow

  16. I also have struggled with albums doing more harm than good. For those photos that are glued down to the pages, I have found that the easiest way to preserve those images is to take another photograph of them. I use my digital camera on a tripod, in close-up mode with a timer. Focus your photo to fill the frame, disable the flash and just use daylight, set the timer for a few seconds so when the shutter releases there will be no jitter. When you print your photograph, be sure to use archival papers. If any photos have writing on their backs, you can then try to carefully remove them from the album pages using one of the methods described in the other comments, although I would hesitate using a blow dryer as it could overheat the photograph. I have also had problems with photos less than 20 years old stored in those flip-up, multi-leaf photo books. The glue holding the leaves in place has made its way onto many of my photos. I have recently removed these photos and put them in ‘no glue, acid free’ photo storage after scanning them all. I think I have my images, some dating to the 1860’s, in pretty good shape now.

  17. I learned from a spamp collector that it is easier to peel the envelope away from the stamp, than to peel the stamp from the envelope. It works! Try this with photos in an album. Then try the other methods on what is left on the back of the photo. I am thankful that my mother divided the family photos and made me spend one teenage summer putting all my photos in albums, with corners to hold the pictures in place. They were not acid free but at least they have not damaged the images.

  18. I researched and purchased a scanner with Digital ICE about six (6) months ago after reading about the benefits of this technology from a different author and have decided it was not worth it. The scanner has many great features, but Digital ICE isn’t one of them. It either didn’t improve the quality of the photo or it “repaired” it too much and important details were removed or at least degraded. It may just be the particular implementation of the ICE algorithms in this unit but based on my experience, I would recommend consulting with other owners of ICE enabled scanners before purchasing (if you can find anyone who has one – I wasn’t that fortunate and had to find out on my own) or forget it altogether and go with the plug-ins for your image processing software. I’ve been getting very good results with an older version of Adobe PhotoShop and the add-ons that are available. Along with a couple of good books I’ve been able to restore some treasured family photographs.

  19. In response to Marguerite’s question (#12), if you save the photos as individual files in a standard format (for example, jpg, tiff, bmp, gif) then other people shouldn’t have a problem opening them. If you’re using a photo management program that puts the photos into a database and that database is what you saved to CD, then other people will usually need the same photo management program to open them. Probably your photo management program has the ability to export or convert photos into one or more of the standard formats.

  20. On removing old pictures from those sticky old phono albums of the 70’s; a little heat from a hand held hair dryer will loosed the glue and the dental floss will then slide in behind the picture.

  21. Well, now I’m worried. I have a lot of my mother’s old pictures (some of which are not in good shape at all), and I was planning on using magnetic albums for safekeeping. Now I’m not so sure I want to do this. What would you think of lightly sticking, maybe using double-stick tape, the pictures to a piece of white construction paper and putting them in acid-free plastic sleeves? Do you think it would damage the pictures further? Comments requested. ccw

  22. Carol: I had some luck identifying old unlabeled photos by connecting with a distant cousin who was researching one of my branches. She was lucky enough to have a number of labeled photos that were either just like or very similar to mine. I was able to narrow the photos to a particular family & time period. Keep them & keep a record of which family you think they might be. Sometimes it takes a long time to find the clues you need to figure out who they are.

    C.C.: DON’T use magnetic albums. I had a LOT of photos from my grandfather that my grandmother asked me to divide among my generation. I purchased some moderately priced archival albums (try Target, Meijer, Michaels, etc.). These were easy to use by slipping each photo into its own sleeve. The ones I purchased had a separate spot for inserting a label. There are a lot of variations that aren’t magnetic & work great!

  23. In response to the deliema of removing old photos from magnetic pages. I reader suggested using a blow dryer to slightly heat the glue underneath price stickers. This works wonders making the paper slide easily off the object. I wonder if this method would help release the photos? Sorry if this is a duplicate. The first message did not seem to go thru. Thanks, Lee Ann

  24. You mention that as you scan photos that you save them as Tiff files though I’ve been saving them as a .jpg file. What is the advantage in using Tiff?
    Thanks for a great article.

  25. I found that most of my photos came right off the pages of my magnetic photo albums after I put the entire album into the freezer overnight. Some just popped right off, and others I just carefully peeled away. There was no damage done to any of the photos.

  26. Wow! I can’t believe the number of comments to this one article. I’m writing a series of follow-up pieces to answer all your questions. Keep posting your questions! Thank you.

  27. Thank you for a wonderful article. I recently spent several weeks getting all my photos organized to scan, and found this very helpful.

    After years of saying “get those photos scanned and saved!”, two things happened to bring it all home on why none of us need to wait – a friend’s house burned down, and my sister-in-law helped her pick her photographs out of the rubble, and we went through Hurricane Rita. I wept for those in New Orleans with Katrina who had theirs destroyed, and feel the same sympathy for those currently going through the Mississippi River flooding in the Midwest.

  28. After my parents died I scanned all the photos in their albums giving each photo a name that reflected the picture. e.g Clara Burr nee Luck 1920.jpg I put them on to CD,together with a text file of the family history. I then gave each family member a copy of the cd and divided the originals between them.
    This way, everyone has a copy of every photo and some originals. If disaster hits, there should still be someone with a full set.

  29. To: Frances Russell

    Concerning backup of USB Flash drive. You are right to be concerned about the longevity of Flash drives. They are okay for temporary storage to move files from one place to another, but should not be depended upon for long-term storage.

    You mention using an offsite backup company for backing up your photos and documents, but that it doesn’t work for the USB Flash drive. I assume the offsite backup company is backing up files from your computer’s hard drive. If it is some other kind of backup service, then ignore the rest of this note.

    If you haven’t already asked the company about backing up the USB Flash drive, try asking them about it. If they don’t have a suitable answer, consider copying the files from the USB drive to your computer hard drive and backing them up from there. Once they are backed up from the hard drive, you should be able to delete them from the hard drive.

    Some backup services might delete the backup if you delete the files from your hard drive, so inquire about how your service works in that respect. If the service does delete the backup when you delete the files from your hard drive, then my suggestion won’t work. In that case, you might find it easiest to have your computer’s hard disk replaced with a larger one so you can hold everything on the hard disk so the backup service will keep backup of all of it. Or you might change to another backup service or make some other change to keeping your backups.

    Whatever you do, find a way to backup what is on the Flash drive. They are not suitable for long-term storage. They are easily lost, easily damaged, and the chips inside have uncertain lifetimes.

  30. To: Bruce Alverson

    Attaching information to photos on CDs. There are several ways to do this.

    One simple way is to create an ordinary text file in which you type the name of each image file on the CD followed by the comments about that image. When you are done, save the text file onto the CD along with the image files. Not perfect, but simple.

    A slightly different way would be to get someone to show you how to create a very simple HTML file into which you would put the text for each image plus a link to the image file. The HTML file would look almost as simple as the first method I mentioned above.

    When you view the HTML file in any web browser (you can view a file on your computer in a web browser — it doesn’t have to be out on the internet), you would see the text and the images side by side. The HTML needed to do this is VERY SIMPLE. Don’t let someone talk you into using a complicated web page creating program to do the job. That will give you many headaches that you really don’t need. Keep asking around until you find someone who knows how to do just the minimum necessary. I’d show you myself if I knew how to contact you.

  31. In 1974, my Mother’s home was flooded, 4 feet of dirty creek water. That’s when we learned, Polaroids dissolve when wet. We lost so many of the first nephew’s baby photos. I was so thankful I had appropriated the four generation Polaroid photo and made copies, then put the original away. Mother had a copy which if it hadn’t been in her black paged scrapbook, would have come through fine. But, she had it in the scrapbook and we discovered black paged scrapbooks bleed dye, purple dye. Permanent dye. We still have photos with part of the photo with a purple cast. The magnetic strip was oily on the early magnetic pages, and they leave permanent damage to the photos and any type of paper in the pages. It also can pull unevenly on the back of the photo and split the photo image from the backing, especially if a family member has trimmed the edges off the Polaroids. Like most people, I love post-it notes. I forgot that it has adhesive and adhesive is bad for photos, and let’s not mention scotch tape… I have so many newspaper obituaries in which Grandfather attached them to the folder with the earlier version, cellophane tape. They turned brown, then detached, and left permanent stains. And I consider that better than the magic tape we have now. It won’t come off and can really tear up a photo or page if one tries to remove it. Avery labels, or any gummed label attached to the back of the photo is also a bad idea. I have several very fragile pages of onion skin in magnetic albums and they were not retrievable after a couple of years. They have turned brown, but the two pages have survived for 34 years in the magnetic pages, but have oily lines that have soaked completely through the paper. As I am having to deal with a scrapbook stored with mothballs, I have to include that mothballs are a very bad idea for any type of photos, scrapbooks, newspapers, and even some fabrics. The smell is incredible. A phrase that comes to mind is, don’t do anything to the image that can not be undone. No tape, post-it notes (adhesive), no magnetic pages, no glue, no paste, no scented products, no lavender, mothballs, ni cleaning solutions of any kind, etc. Distilled water won’t harm most photos, but even it can harm the Polaroids. One has to weigh the intended use of the photos against the care. Each type of image is different and what works for one frequently may not work for another. I have found the best approach is to make a digital copy using a camera stand or if the photo isn’t frail, I might use a flatbed scanner. Then the copy can be framed, displayed, put in scrapbooks, supplied to interested family, and/or used to create digital albums. Then we try to store the original following established practices of preservation and conservation of materials. And if our resources aren’t adequate, we can either get help from other family members or with the family’s knowledge, donate the images to a library or museum that collects the type of photos you are offering.

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