Preservation

What kind of photo album should I use?

There are many types of photo albums available. These albums may or may not be appropriate for certain photos in certain circumstances. What may be safe and appropriate (and inexpensive) for everyday disposable snapshots that will only be of interest to you for a few years may not be appropriate for photos that are family keepsakes or those destined to become your family heirlooms. Keep in mind the long term implications when selecting an album as some may cause damage in the short or long term and should not be used with family keepsakes or those you wish to keep for decades.

Album pages, not the covers, have the most influence on the long term preservation of your photos since they are in direct contact with the photos and can cause the most harm.There are three types of album pages:

  1. plastic pocket pages (pages with pockets for inserting the photos)
  2. paper pages with or without a clear plastic cover sheet
  3. so-called magnetic albums or self stick albums having clear cover sheets

Plastic pocket pages have the advantage that no adhesive is needed to secure the photo but photos may slip out of the pocket opening. Paper pages require some method of securing the photo to the paper such as photo corners or adhesives. Self stick pages provide their own means of securing photos to the page, but surround the photo with adhesive which may be deleterious to the photo.

All papers, plastics, and adhesives used in albums should pass the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). The PAT was developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and is a test that determines whether or not a storage material will cause fading or staining in photographs. The PAT standard code is ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test. Many manufacturers test their products with the PAT and advertise storage materials and albums which pass the PAT. In addition, ANSI has another standard for photo storage materials: ANSI IT9.2 Photographic Processed Films, Plates, and Papers--Filing Enclosures and Storage Containers; this standard specifies the high quality of the paper and plastics, and recommends designs for storage materials such as envelopes and pocket pages.

In general, plastic pages and cover sheets made from uncoated pure polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester (also called Mylar D or Mellinex 516) are considered stable and non-damaging to photographs. Polyester is crystal clear and is more rigid than polyethylene and polypropylene. None of these recommended plastics have any odor to them, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic does have a strong odor (like a new car odor). Avoid the use of PVC plastics--they generate acids which can fade the photograph in time. In addition, the plastic can stick to items inside and, in some types of photographs (and printed items such as baseball cards), actually cause the image to transfer to the plastic. For these reasons, PVC cover sheets, pages and albums should not be used for valuable photographs or those you want to preserve for a long time.

Look for paper pages that are made from a high-quality, non-acidic, lignin-free paper (either buffered or unbuffered) made from cotton or highly purified wood pulps. Paper pages with plastic cover sheets offer more protection to the photographs--from fingerprints, accidental spills, and by preventing the photos from sticking to each other in damp conditions.

Self stick albums should be avoided for any valuable photos that are meant to be kept for a long time. Self-stick pages are coated with an adhesive that stains photos and possibly fades some types of photographs over time. In addition, in the long term, the adhesive either dries up and fails after several years and discolors to an unsightly dark yellow, or, in the short term, the adhesive becomes very tacky making it difficult to remove photos without damaging them.

Albums are available in many styles from spiral or ring binders to post or clamp bindings or those bound with traditional sewing; with cloth, plastic or leather covers. All are acceptable and your choice of album style may depend more on the "look" you want and cost. One thing to remember is that the album should not be overstuffed once you have added all the pages and attached the photographs. Overstuffing is particularly bad for post and sewn bindings--the added thickness of the pages with attached photographs might break the narrower binding and splay open the album. Overstuffing also makes it difficult to turn pages in a spiral and ring binder and damages the pages

Paper corners which are to be used only with paper memorabilia need only pass the standard for permanent paper ANSI/NISO Z39.48, Permanence of Paper for Publication of Documents in Libraries and Archives. This standard specifies the characteristics of paper that is of a permanent nature and which will not harm other documents with which it is in contact.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

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