Family photographs are priceless. They enrich family histories and provide glimpses into a previous way of life. Over the past 150 years, photographs have been increasingly used to chronicle family events. Photos not only preserve memories, but give clues useful for further research. Photographs should be preserved with the greatest of care, for they can aid in the search for the past and enhance our understanding of our ancestors' lives. Organizing and preserving photos will enable the next generation to share these valuable treasures.
Photographs can aid in family history research and should be considered a valuable original document. Details in the photograph will not only give you a feel for how they lived, but may give clues leading to additional records. A photo of a man with a badge or medal might give you a clue to his occupation or military service. A woman may have a noticeable limp, and her story possibly could be discovered through medical records. Snapshots can be particularly revealing because they often show how people live, including their home, work, and family recreation.
Proper photo storage is vital to extending the life of the photographs that make family history come alive. Organize and label all photographs with a soft pencil. Store photos in archival boxes. Talk to older relatives and try to find out as much as possible about the photos. Many people have boxes of old photos and no information at all about the subjects. If dates are unknown, consult a specialist in photo dating or consult available books on the subject. Photographs can be dated when photo processing techniques, clothing, hairstyles and buildings can be identified with a specific time period.
Archivists agree that the foremost destroyers of photographs are light, humidity and extreme temperatures. Photos should be stored at a nearly constant temperature, in the dark, where the humidity is relatively low. Changing conditions can be very harmful. Never store photos in non-insulated attics or basements that will vary widely in temperature.
Other foes include acid, adhesive, insects, rodents and oil from hands. Acid-free paper and albums should always be used in displaying and storing photographs. Scrapbook stores now sell an archival mist than makes paper acid-free and safe to use. Solutions are also available to remove adhesive and clean photos. Oil from hands can be harmful to photos, so try to hold them by the edges. Photo cleaning kits also include a soft, lint-free cloth for wiping oils away.
To ensure that photo images are never lost, make digital copies of your prints and burn them onto CDs. CDs should last a long time. That way, photocopies can also be distributed to several family members, which will lessen the chance of losing them entirely due to deterioration or disaster.
Photo preservation is important for extending the life of most precious family photos. Many products are available to aid in the task. Proper preservation will enable future generations a glimpse into the past and will aid in the pursuit of true and complete family history.