7 Steps for Preserving Old Photo Albums and Scrapbooks

Preserving old albums means figuring out what to do with everything inside. What if items are dirty or mildewed? How can you safely store related memorabilia? The Archive Lady Melissa Barker tackles these common and important questions.

Recently Donna wrote in to tell us about a fantastic trove of family heirlooms she’s recently acquired—and to ask us how to take care of them. Here’s what she wants to know: “I’ve recently been given a huge amount of letters (WWII), photos, medals, etc. from my grandparent’s estate. I have two question/subjects that I’m asking about:

I’ve read a lot of things concerning preservation and have started doing that. But, I’ve never read what to do with items…specifically pictures in old fold out ‘albums’ where the album itself appears to have possible mold mildew or dirt. Do I slide out the pictures and while scanning them, [then] take some kind of bleach or other solution to the things on it? Do I just take pictures of the original and toss it? (I’d hate to do that.) I don’t want to compromise the collection because of one bad item, but I also want to preserve these things for the next generations.

Also, when putting things (letters, for example) into buffered folders and then placing them in archival boxes, can you put other media into the same archival box? For example: pictures, letters, and the dreaded newspaper clipping—all in their own folder, but in the same archival box? Or should each “type” of item have a dedicated box? Since V-Mail letters, airmail, and regular letters might be typed, written in ink or pencil, and/or images (v-mail) printed out, can they go into separate folders but in the same archival box?”

Donna concludes, “I’m trying hard to find these answers. I am assuming that since things are divided out, they will be okay in the same box. I am treating my grandfather’s ribbons and some coins this way…putting them in divided/sectioned clamshell boxes where each divided area has a different medium or item. Basically, I guess I’m worried about whether items physically separated but in the same container will still affect each other.”

7 Steps for Preserving Old Photo Albums and Scrapbooks

Donna asks some great questions about records preservation. It sounds like she has some true treasures in her collection and it is understandable that she would want to use the proper methods to keep them protected for generations to come.

Here are 7 steps you can take to preserve your old, deteriorating photo albums and scrapbooks:

1. The molding photograph that Donna has in the fold out album is something that should be dealt with immediately. Remove the photograph from the album if possible.

2. Take the album and place it in outside in direct sunlight for about 30 minutes, which should kill the mold.

3. Then using a damp cloth, clean the album and let it dry. This should have removed any mold that was on the album. Never use any chemicals, like bleach, on any items you are trying to preserve.

4. Digitize the photograph and then place it back in the original album. It is important to keep the photo and the fold out album together for provenance.

5. Place the album with the photograph into an archival sleeve and then into an archival file folder.

6. The folder can then be placed into an archival box.

7. It is important to store all photographs in a cool, dark and dry place. Humidity and moisture will cause more mold and damage. The temperature should also be a consistent temperature. Fluctuating temperatures can damage photographs.

Donna asks about putting several different items into the same archival box. It is perfectly acceptable to put different items in the same archival box. Photographs, old letters, and newspaper clippings can be stored in the same box as long as they are not touching each other and are in their own file folder. It is also acceptable to place small artifacts in the same box as long as it does not fold or lay on the file folders where the other documents are located. Be sure to not overcrowd the box which could cause damage to what is stored inside the box.

Taking the steps needed to preserve our precious family papers and heirlooms is what we should all be doing. The next generation will be glad that we did!

archival sleeve preserving old albums

Images are courtesy of Melissa Barker and the Houston County, TN Archives.

Keep reading: How to archive family history documents

Keep up the good work preserving your own old albums and other family documents. If you found this helpful, I also recommend you read my article “How to archive family history documents,” in which I answer another Genealogy Gems fan’s question about safely preserving precious original family paperwork.


About the Author: Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Old Scrapbooks for Genealogy

Old scrapbooks are a great resource for discovering your family history, whether you find them in your family’s attic or you stumble across an obituary scrapbook in a local archive. Check out The Archive Lady’s tips for finding these one-of-a kind resources.

Scrapbooks are one of my favorite record sources to do genealogy research in and to also process in the archives. There are all kinds of scrapbooks; each and every one is unique and one-of-a-kind. They were put together with love and the hope that what was saved and pasted onto those pages will be remembered.

The origins of scrapbooking is said to go back to the 15th century in England and it is still a hobby enjoyed by many today. Most archives, libraries, historical and genealogical societies have scrapbooks in their collections. They will most likely be found in the Manuscript Collection as part of a specifically named collection.

What’s in old scrapbooks

Scrapbooks contain all kinds of wonderful genealogical records, photographs, and ephemera. There is even a scrapbook in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives that has candy bar wrappers pasted in it!

That particular scrapbook is one of my absolute favorites. It was compiled and owned by Evelyn Ellis and dates to the 1930s and 1940s. Among the normal newspaper clippings and event programs are interesting pieces such as a Baby Ruth candy bar wrapper with a handwritten note by Evelyn that reads, “Always remember June 11, 1938 at Beach Grove at the Ice Cream Supper:” 

There is also an original ticket pasted into the scrapbook from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee where Evelyn Ellis visited and recorded her comments on April 1, 1939:

There are scrapbooks for just about any subject. Aside from personal scrapbooks, you can find war scrapbooks, obituary clipping scrapbooks, and scrapbooks that collected and recorded local or national events. The obituaries found in scrapbooks could be a real find because sometimes they are the only pieces of the newspaper that survive and can be a treasure trove for any genealogist. Many scrapbooks contain one-of-a-kind documents, photographs, and ephemera.

To find scrapbooks in an archive, ask the archivist if they have any scrapbooks in their records collections. Many times scrapbooks are housed with a particular manuscript collection and will be listed in the finding aid. Some archives have a collection of just scrapbooks that have been donated to them and can be easily accessed. Most scrapbooks will not be on research shelves, but rather will be stored in back rooms at the archives and will have to be requested. You should also check the archives online catalog for any listings of scrapbooks before you jump in the car and drive to the archives.

I encourage all genealogists to check with the archive in the area where your ancestors were from and see if they have any scrapbooks in their archived records collections. Scrapbooks are like time capsules; you don’t know what will be found in them until you open them up.

“Remember: It’s not all online; contact or visit an archive today!” That’s Melissa’s signature line. Even though we here at Genealogy Gems love teaching you how to find everything online–whether via Google or your favorite Genealogy Giants websites–it’s important to know how to find original documents and manuscripts that aren’t online. Click here to read more from Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady.

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