Do’s and Don’ts for the Handling of Your Photographs

© Universal Press Syndicate

What this cartoon teaches us is that digitization is not preservation. How many of you can now open those documents saved to old floppy disks? Technology changes, meaning it can't guarantee that your favorite digital image will be available for viewing on your computer in years to come. Take care of your traditional images. They are your link to your past.

Your photographs are significant documents in the history of your family and community. You will lose them forever unless you take steps to preserve them.


  1. Touch the emulsion side of prints and negatives. Handle them by the edges only.
  2. Cut photos into decorative shapes. While they may be aesthetically pleasing, the emulsion at the edges of the image is fragile; cuts allow humidity, light, and pollution to destroy the image.
  3. Write on photos with regular ink or use rubber stamps on the front or back of the images. Use pencil or, if pencil isn’t practical in the case of a resin-coated image, purchase pens with archival ink from a reputable archival supply house.
  4. Use scotch or pressure-sensitive tape, paper clips, rubber bands, rubber cement, commercial glues (clear or white), or other foreign substances. If you want to mount your images, use photo corners or polyester sleeves.
  5. Put photographs in "magnetic," "sticky page," or other non-archival albums. The acids in these materials will permanently ruin your photographs.
  6. Store photographs in cardboard boxes or unfinished wood drawers.
  7. Store photographs face-to-face. Pulp paper acids will destroy your photographs. Store them back-to-back.
  8. Store photographs in basements, garages, storage buildings, or top shelves of closets.
  9. Excessive heat or other changes in temperature will destroy your photographs.
  10. Photocopy more often than once every 2 years.
  11. Throw away your negatives. If you are looking for ways to save space around your home, it is better to throw away the print than the negative. Another print can be made from the negative but another negative would be hard to make from the print.


  1. Handle photographs and negatives carefully, by the edges only.
  2. Write identification of people and places, dates, etc. on the back of the image with a pencil. (Don't press hard enough to leave an imprint on the front of the print.) Even more ideally, place negatives in an archivally-appropriate sleeve and write the information on the sleeve.
  3. Store special photographs (the ones you would carry with you out of a burning building) in high-end archival sleeves and archival boxes.
  4. Store the bulk of your images in archival boxes that create a micro-environment that protects photographs from humidity, light, pollution, and insects.
  5. Place the archival boxes and albums in a filing cabinet or on a bookshelf at floor level or on the next higher shelf. An environment in which you are comfortable is good for photographs too. The drier the prints, the better.
  6. Consider giving your historically significant photographs to The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where they can be properly cared for. Want to know more? email us at

Copying Photographs

People copy photographs for two main reasons:

  1. To create a decorative element for a room, often by having the photograph enlarged, perhaps hand colored, and put in an appropriate frame. For decor, the sky's the limit. Enjoy cropping, enlarging, coloring or combining images. Enjoy the results. However, to make your decorative images last as long as possible, it is best to frame them under UV-protected glass.
  2. As a basis for genealogical or historical research. For research purposes, a two-step approach is best.

First, make a working copy of the photograph, either digitally or through photocopying. Don't, however, do this more than once every couple of years. To preserve maximum data, make the copy the same size as the original, edge to edge, including any cardboard mounting. If there is any written or printed matter on the reverse of the image (such as a photographer's name), photocopy the back as well (same-size). If the photocopy is not completely legible, transcribe the words on the copy in pencil. Make further photocopies of the image from the working copy, not from the original. This will reduce the amount of wear and tear on the original.

Second, for the most significant photographs in your collection, if possible, have a large-size copy negative made of the entire image, including the mount, if any. Store the copy negative in an archival sleeve and use it to make high quality copies for research, genealogical albums, or as your basis for decorative enlargements. Photographs made this tried and true way have lasted for more than 125 years and longer. Plus, the negative/positive approach gives you a backup for replacements of lost and/or damaged prints.

Warning: a digitized copy of a photograph is no substitute for the original. These copies will deteriorate. You cannot depend on them to last, despite the claims made by manufacturers. In addition, just as most of us can no longer retrieve music stored on 8-track tapes, the machine in which your image is stored may be obsolete in a year or two and the image no longer retrievable. The same goes for computer enhanced photographs. They are no longer historically accurate images, hence no good for research purposes. Much useful data has been lost.

Using Archival Materials

Using archival materials for housing your photographs is the best way for you to help ensure the longest possible life for your photographs.

Purchase storage and housing materials only from archival supply companies, art suppliers, or other suppliers who can show you the magic initials PAT on the label (meaning the material has passed the Photographic Activity Test).

Buyer beware! If you did not purchase archival materials in the past, you can be sure that more than 99 percent of your photograph storage boxes or albums are not archival and are causing damage to your images. The worst culprit is those sticky-page "magnetic" albums.

Do a quick low-tech test. Open the album or storage containers and take a deep whiff. If it smells musty or reeks of chemicals it is damaging your pictures. Do something about it quickly. Plastic photo folders or paper album pages that don't smell funny are second in priority. Within the next six months, you should shift the photos in them to archival housing.

Archival materials vary in price from inexpensive archival boxes to medium-priced albums, sleeves, and other housing. They may cost a bit more than materials found at the dime store, but they are well worth the price if you want to save your images. Non-archival materials will not help your photographs and will, most likely, damage them irretrievably. Buy and use archival materials and feel good about protecting your heritage.