Stop Damaging Your Family Photos and Learn to Protect Them

An essential part of your family heritage is in danger of being lost, and yet few are aware of it.

Most of us have family photo albums in our possession. They are a wonderful way to reconnect with the past as we create our family archives. You would think that storing photos in albums would be the safest way to protect them.

Think again! The kind that you should be aware of because of their damaging nature are magnetic albums. Although they have no magnets, they act that way because they hold photographs in place. Their cardboard pages grip photos on a sticky, adhesive coating, covered by a layer of plastic that is peeled back to position photos. Incredibly, despite the common knowledge that these albums are damaging to images, they are still being sold.

The cardboard gives off chemicals that cause staining. The yellowing doesn’t just affect the page; it can damage the photos too. The plastic seals the photographs in with the cardboard and gives off gasses that attack the images. The adhesive bonds with the photos, curling and tearing them if you try to remove them.

Many of the albums also contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a destructive chemical.

These albums tend to hold color images, which are less stable than the black and white film used in previous generations. That’s why many photographs from the 1970s have a color shift that makes them look like an Instagram filter has been applied to them. 

If you store the albums in an attic or a basement, the environments expose the pictures to damaging heat, humidity, and temperature fluctuations.

When all of these destructive elements combine in one place, your most prized images won’t last. It’s enough to give this archivist heart palpitations!

There’s hope, if you follow my instructions.

First, remove any family history items out of basements, attics, sheds, or other areas. Ideally, they should be stored in areas of your home that are not in direct sunlight and are the most stable as far as humidity and temperature are concerned. An interior closet is a good choice.

If you have images in magnetic albums, remove the photos if you can without damaging them. Find an acid-free, photo-safe place to store them. The Container Store, for example, sells photographic storage boxes.

Ideally, you should recreate the album in an archival-quality photo album. By doing so, you preserve the way that the album was meant to be viewed, which tells you more about the person who created it.

I inherited my grandmother’s photo album; I was her first grandchild. I loved looking at this album at her house when I was a child. I think my love of historic photos can be traced to this artifact. 

Let me show you what a magnetic album looks like (and also show off what a cute baby I was!)

On the original album, you can see "Margaret Ann's" written above "album" in my grandmother's hand. This album was purchased around 1977.

On the original album, you can see "Margaret Ann's" written above "album" in my grandmother's hand. This album was purchased around 1977.

The browning around the edges of this page is typical of highly-acidic paper. Two lines that make me laugh: "The transparent film enhances their appearance and gives them complete protection" and "You can even remove your photos any time after mounting without any damage."

The browning around the edges of this page is typical of highly-acidic paper. Two lines that make me laugh: "The transparent film enhances their appearance and gives them complete protection" and "You can even remove your photos any time after mounting without any damage."

On this page, you can see the yellowing that occurs around the album's edge. I also wanted to highlight how black and white photographs are more stable. The photo on the left seems too orange, while the black and white photo retains its crispness. Look at what a boss I was even back then!

On this page, you can see the yellowing that occurs around the album's edge. I also wanted to highlight how black and white photographs are more stable. The photo on the left seems too orange, while the black and white photo retains its crispness. Look at what a boss I was even back then!

You can see a ghostly outline of where a photo used to be in the upper left part of this image. The photo at the bottom has yellowed around its edges. Damaging chemical transfer occurred within this album.

You can see a ghostly outline of where a photo used to be in the upper left part of this image. The photo at the bottom has yellowed around its edges. Damaging chemical transfer occurred within this album.

The saving grace to this album is that no adhesive remains. I don't know if it transferred onto the images, or if it dried out. This makes the photos easy to remove, but they can be damaged by sliding out or sticking out of the album.

The saving grace to this album is that no adhesive remains. I don't know if it transferred onto the images, or if it dried out. This makes the photos easy to remove, but they can be damaged by sliding out or sticking out of the album.

If you encounter sticky photos, work with them gently as not to damage or tear them. A piece of dental floss can be used to carefully glide them off the page. If they seem impossible to remove, contact a photo conservator.

I purchased an archival photo album kit online from Gaylord Archival, as well as a matching slipcase, to keep out the dust. Gaylord is one a handful of companies that sell preservation materials to archives, libraries, and museums. I accidentally ordered the wrong sized slipcase, and a representative called me the next day to correct the order. The company has a good reputation with archivists, and I especially liked this customer service touch.

This post is not sponsored by Gaylord Archival, but the link above is generated through Amazon Associates. 

This post is not sponsored by Gaylord Archival, but the link above is generated through Amazon Associates. 

The kit contains 25 mounting pages, two packets of photo corners, an archival envelope, a glue pen, and an archival ink pen (to be used on the pages, not the photos themselves).  

An example of a page replicated in the new archival-quality album. Once I've decided on the positioning, I would secure the images to the page with mounting corners and write the caption, "10 days old - August 28, 1977" on the page. 

An example of a page replicated in the new archival-quality album. Once I've decided on the positioning, I would secure the images to the page with mounting corners and write the caption, "10 days old - August 28, 1977" on the page. 

I'm in the process of recreating my grandmother's album in my new photo-safe album. Since many images have fallen off the pages or moved, it will take me a bit of time to figure out what image went where. And to be honest, as with many family and personal archives projects, I'm luxuriating in the work. (I save the hustle for when I'm working with my consulting clients!) 

Do you have magnetic photo albums? What are you doing to protect your family photos?

To learn the preservation secrets used by libraries, archives, and museums to protect their priceless materials (that you can also use for your family heritage items) read my book: 

Ready to get started creating your family archives? Here are some of my favorite products:

Follow me on Pinterest | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook

Like this post? Never miss an update when you sign up for my newsletter. As a gift to you, you'll receive a free, premium download of my Project Prioritizer. This trusted tool will help you embrace where you are with your collections and start enjoying your family archives more today