Saving the Stories in Family Albums, by Maureen Taylor

One reader posted a comment to my Between the Covers article about a family album from 1864 that’s survived smoke damage and is now in terrible shape. The acidic paper used in the manufacture of the pages is now brittle and easily falls apart.  She’s wondering what to do with it now. She asked a series of questions about preserving this heirloom. What she’d like to do is remove all the photos, scan them and then preserve them. That’s a good plan, but it doesn’t address all her questions.  I’m going to answer each her questions one at a time.

“Should I just go ahead and remove the photos?”
Each album tells a story and offers clues about who’s who in the collection of images. Before removing the photos from an album it’s a good idea to photograph or scan the page in its entirety so that you have a record of the original order. This also helps preserve any identifying information written on the album page.

The first photo in an album is a key family history document.  The person who laid out the book spent time selecting just the right image for that first spot. It’s usually someone important to them–husband, wife, mother, father or child. I’ve even see albums where the person who’s created the album put a picture of themselves on the opening page.
“Should I worry about further damage to the album?”
That depends on if you intend to save the original album. Technically it’s a family artifact, but if it’s falling apart the question becomes, is it worth saving?  According to Tim Salls, Senior Archivist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, “The ideal situation is to document the original order of the photos, preserve the pictures in individual acid and lignin free and non-pvc plastic sleeves, and then store the old empty album in a separate acid and lignin free box, thus maintaining the historic value of the collection.”

When getting ready to scan, carefully remove the photos to cause as little damage as possible to the image and the page then scan both the front and back. Designate their position in the album as 1 front and 1 back. If there is more than one photo on a page then 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d–each followed by front and back.  You can then use your copies of the whole page to see their exact placement.

At one of the recent conferences, a vendor (I wish I could remember who) was selling new albums that looked just like the late nineteenth century albums with the cut-out pages for cabinet card photos. They were even acid and lignin free. Using one of these albums would allow Kathy to recreate the old order of the photos in a preservation quality product. She could also use acid and lignin free scrapbook pages to recreate the look of the original album. 

“Should I catalog them as I go (some have writing on the back, others do not)?”
By cataloging them one at a time, you’ll be able to enter in the information such as labels and keywords, you’ll need to find the pictures later on. In the case of unidentified photographs, leave the cataloging record blank to be filled in when you’re done scanning.  Genealogical software programs and photo organizing programs allow users to import photos and record data relating to the image.

The reader is on the right track thinking about preserving her family album. Once she has scans of all the images she’ll be able to piece together the family story that is present in the arrangement using her family history and photographs.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Maureen Taylor, is The Photo Detective Her work on family photographs was profiled in the Wall Street Journal.  You can read her blog at

8 thoughts on “Saving the Stories in Family Albums, by Maureen Taylor

  1. “…preserve the pictures in individual acid and lignin free and non-pvc plastic sleeves,”
    I thought that putting pictures in plastic sleeves could expose the pictures to moisture if the overall conditions became very hot due to high temperatures. I had this happpen when we were on a two week trip abroard and at home there was a heat wave of over 100 degrees. Our air conditioner conked out and I came home to melted candles.

  2. Hi Friends,
    This seems to be the same problem that I faced .me too has an album which contains the wonderful photos of older times. Well last week I just took it after a long way back to just take a quick look. But most of the photos were damaged. What I did is I just scanned it and edited the image removing all the damage and it turned out to be great.


    Wide Circles

  3. Scan them first. Go to Wal-Mart; they can scan the whole page and print each picture. Then go from there.

  4. If the pages crumble as you turn them, perhaps putting a piece of paper under and a piece of paper on the top of the old page to provide support as your turn the page.
    Using a digital camera might help in keeping track of the order of pictures and what the original page looked like. I purchased a close up lens for mine but have discovered my husband’s newer digital camera can take the same pictures I can of documents. I have found using a sticky note with A B C written in 1/2 inch letters along the sticky edge helps me get the whole page in focus. It can be cropped off later or you use 1 2 3 instead, and keep track of the page number as you photograph the page for later reference. Good luck!

  5. The antique style photo albums with the (archival quality paper) slots are available at many of the larger books stores that also have a good sized department for journals and photo albums. I have bought several that are copies of Victorian era books. I’m pretty sure I saw them in a catalogue from Book of The Month Club awhile back as well.I scanned and copied very old photos that my Dad had and made copies for my daughters, which I put in these vintage style albums. They look Beautiful!

  6. Pingback: Blog - » NBC Today Show “Discovering Our Roots”

  7. Pingback: Genealogy Blogs » Blog Archive » NBC Today Show “Discovering Our Roots”

  8. Pingback: NBC Today Show “Discovering Our Roots”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *