Antique Albums and Embossed Frames: Preserving Family Photos

In this installment of "Ask An Archivist," Chelsea interviews AJHS Photography Archivist Liz Hyman about how to preserve delicate family photograph collections.

This past weekend my mom took the boxes that hold our family photograph collection down off the closet shelf and sat at the kitchen table with the contents spread out in front of her. Some of the photographs were framed, while others were in worn kodak envelopes with their original negatives, and there is a photo album spanning six generations with handwritten notes form my grandmother.  

 I can only imagine that a lot of families find themselves in a similar position: wanting to preserve these precious photographs for future generations, but really having no clue where to even start.  So for this installment of "Ask an Archivist," I asked my friend and colleague Liz Hyman, the Photography & Reference Archivist of AJHS, if she could walk me through how archivists approach preserving photography collections.  

Chelsea: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions Liz! I was hoping to get us started, you could you give a little background on what it means to be a photo archivist? 

Liz: As the photo archivist for AJHS, my job often involves processing photographs donated with large family collections. This is a fascinating process, and it’s a joy to observe the changing travel habits, fashions, and homes of families over the generations. 

When families donate their papers to an archival repository, it can indicate that the family has a sense of its own importance in the political, social, economic, and/or cultural spheres. It shows that the family is aware of the importance of family history, and that its members have intentionally collected and put aside letters, diaries, photographs, diplomas, and other items, for posterity and preservation. Once processed, the family is assured that their history is preserved at a professional level, and the repository has documentation of multiple generations of Jewish life in America, to be made accessible to researchers.  

Photographs are such a powerful tool for helping us understand the past, whether its our own family’s story or a community’s history. What can families be doing to preserve and protect our family photograph collections at home? 

Two fragile photos from above album, depicting a family member’s trip abroad.I think a good "case study” for us is a family collection I have been working with that includes a large photographic and visual component, dating from the late 19th century to the early 2000s. When the Loeb family donated their materials to us, the photographs were still in their original frames and albums. This is ostensibly a good thing, as one of the key principles which governs archival practice is the respect for the creator’s original order. That order provides context for the collection, and without it, researchers and future generations of may lose relevant information. 

That makes a lot of sense that order is really important to preserving the story being told. What about picture frames though, picture frames also protected photographs right? 

Photographs are a delicate form of media, and their longevity depends not only when they were taken and the specific chemical development process used, but on proper storage. And while beautiful, decorative frames are not proper archival storage. Glass can crack and filter in damaging light, or the matting may not be acid-free. 

What are some factors photo archivists consider when considering how best to preserve a photo album? 

Rotting photo album from the Loeb Collection, shown here lying on its preservation wrapping.When it comes to photo albums, often photos are glued directly into the album, using paper that is highly unlikely to be of archival quality. Even if not glued directly into the album, the slips in the album pages may not be appropriate for long term preservation.  

On the surface, the solution to these preservation issues is to remove the photographs from their frames and albums. However, sometimes frames may be custom made, and embossed with family names, or initials; and often, the frames themselves have writing or notation on them. Similar concerns can arise with photo albums. The family member who created the album may have placed the photographs into the album in a specific order that tells a story or holds special meaning. Some albums feature handwritten captions and notations beneath and between photographs. For research purposes, those notations are vital to retaining the context of the photographs, and the interests, intent, and concerns of the creator. For families, that can be a precious connection to a loved one or generations past.  

So in order to preserve the photographs you risk losing the story the context can provide, but at the same time keeping pictures in their original context may mean those pictures deteriorate faster? How do archivists preserve the order and protect the photographs? I feel like you are about to reveal a “magical door number 3” option! 

Picture frame with “FLL” embossed; the initials of Frances LoebAs an archivist when we are working with photo collections we create a processing plan. We have talked about physical processing and conservation, but there can be a third level called digital preservation. Digital preservation is basically preservation through photography. Before each and every photograph is removed from its album or frame, we take create a digital facsimile, or a photograph, in order to conserve the physical integrity of the item as best we can.  

In the case of framed photographs, the preservation photography captures the image in its original frame, and any handwriting or unique characteristics of the frame. For photo albums, the preservation photography allows us to capture each page of the album, prior to removal of the photos, so that future users will be able to observe the photographs in their original order and to clearly read any handwritten content beneath or between the photographs.  

I’ve really enjoyed searching through our collections online and being able to actually flip through a photo album and read the notes next to photographs. I think my family would really enjoy having a digital copy of our photo album because then we could all have copies we can access.  

Through digital preservation it is possible to maintain context and original order of the creator, and not be forced to compromise between conservation and archival principles of order and arrangement. Just remember though, those digital facsimiles are photographs too, and they also need to preserved! 

 Liz I think you just gave me an idea for our next blog “From Floppy Disks to Google Drives.” Thank you so much for taking the time to talk me through what my family can be doing to preserve our family photo collection. 


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