Storing Family Papers and Photographs

From: Michael S Sheaffer:

Recently I began archiving my long overdue and ever growing family history collection of documents,papers, and photos. I have been researching and copying for years but neglecting to properly store many of these valuable documents and photos, I began to notice how quickly some were beginning to fade from less than proper storage methods

As I began to research for ways to properly store these items,  I came upon an area of the National Archives website that describe in detail the best way to do it. I have posted that article here hoping it helps others before it’s too late.  Good Luck!

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Store items at a low temperature and a low relative humidity

Different storage conditions changed how these two photographs aged.

  • The lower the temperature the longer your items will last, because cooler temperatures slow the rate of chemical decay and reduce insect activity. Keep the temperature below 75 degrees Fahrenheit (F).
  • Keep the relative humidity (rH) below 65% to prevent mold growth and reduce insect activity.
  • Avoid very low relative humidity because relative humidity below 15% can cause brittleness.

Consider cold storage for acetate negatives, color negatives, prints, and slides

  • Acetate negatives and color negatives, slides, and prints are vulnerable to fading and deterioration within decades, if stored at room temperature. Cold storage can slow this deterioration, but it requires special packaging and steps. Learn how to prepare items for cold storage at National Park Service Cold Storage website.

Reduce the risk of damage from water, insects, and rodents

  • Store items out of damp basements, garages, and hot attics.
  • Keep items away from sources of leaks and floods, such as pipes, windows, or known roof leaks.
  • Store items on a shelf so they don’t get wet.
  • Store items away from food and water which are attractive to insects and rodents.

Packaging family papers and photographs for storage. Boxes, folders, rolls, sleeves, albums, and scrapbooks, oh my!

Box with folders that fit exactly inside Image of what not to do, papers are bent and folded to fit inside the box
Box with folders that fit exactly inside. What not to do: papers are bent and folded to fit inside the box.
Document box with spacer boards Image of what not to do, items are hanging outside the folder resulting in creased and crumpled edges
Document box with spacer boards. What not to do: items are hanging outside the folder resulting in creased and crumpled edges.

Use containers that:

  • Are big enough for the originals to lay flat or upright without folding or bending
  • Are the right sizes, so items don’t shift
    • Use a spacer board if there are not enough items to fill an upright box.
    • Don’t overstuff the box.
  • Are made of board or folder stock that is lignin-free and acid-free or buffered.
  • Have passed the PAT if storing photographs

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Large flexible sheets can be stored rolled.

  • Roll onto a sturdy tube so it is less likely to be crushed.
  • Use an archival quality paper tube that is buffered with low-lignin content.
  • Select a tube that is at least two inches longer than the width of the widest sheet.
  • Five sheets may be rolled on to one tube. Roll all five sheets onto the tube at the same time, not one after the other.

How to roll onto a tube:

Paper is prepared to be rolled onto a tube Paper is rolled onto the tube with the tube at a right angle to the long edge A cover paper is being rolled onto the tube to protect originals from light damage
Line up the originals on the tube. Make sure the tube is larger than the originals with extra room in case it doesn’t roll straight. Slowly roll the tube so that the originals roll around it. Keep the tube at right angles to the long edges of the originals as you roll. This helps the originals roll straight onto the tube. Once the originals have been wrapped around the tube, wrap the rolled originals with acid free tissue or bond paper. This will protect them from light.
Polyester film is being rolled on the tube to protect the originals from water Cotton twill tape or flat ribbon being loosely tied around the roll to secure the polyester film
Cover the paper wrapper with polyester film. The polyester film will protect the original and the paper wrapper from water. Loosely tie with cotton twill tape or flat ribbon to secure the polyester film.


A document in polyester sleeve Image of what not to do, a book with a polyester sleeve on the page
A document in polyester sleeve What not to do: a book with a polyester sleeve on the page

If your originals are brittle, torn, or heavily used, place each sheet in a polyester L-sleeve. These sleeves reduce the risk of tears and other damage due to handling.

  • Only place one item in a sleeve and make sure all parts of the text or image is visible. This way the item can stay in the sleeve while being viewed.
  • Use sleeves that are larger than the original. Any part of the original extending outside of the sleeve is likely to be damaged.
  • Don’t use sleeves in books. The sharp edges of the polyester will tear the book page.


There are a variety of binding styles and types that are safe, including spiral, ring binders, post or clamp bindings, or traditional sewn bindings The album cover material can be cloth, stable plastic, or leather. Choose the look and the style of the album you like. More important than the cover material is the quality of the album pages and other materials in direct contact with the photographs and papers.

Avoid overstuffing albums; don’t add too many items to the pages or too many pages to the alum. This can cause damage to the pages of the album and the attached items, as well as make it difficult to use.

An overstuffed photo album page A stable plastic photo page
An overstuffed photo album page A stable plastic photo page
A paper photo corner A plastic photo corner
A paper photo corner A plastic photo corner

The safest method to mount photographs and papers is without glue or adhesive. This can be done by:

  • Using pages or envelopes that are acid free and sleeves made of stable plastics such as polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene.
  • Using corners made from acid free paper or stable plastic films such as polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene.

Materials to Avoid When Storing Family Papers

Materials that can cause physical damage, will discolor over time, ooze from the edges, or will be difficult to remove in the future including:

Front of the photograph with stains from poor quality glue on the back Back of the photograph showing poor quality glue
Poor quality glue. Front of the photograph with stains from poor quality glue on the back. Synthetic glue (white glue), hot glue gun adhesives or any other unknown glues
Discolored rubber cement Degraded pressure sensitive tape
Rubber cement Pressure-sensitive tape
Degraded pressure sensitive tape Rusted paper clips staining the paper
“Magnetic albums” that have self stick adhesive with a clear cover Non-stainless steel staples and paper clips
Discolored rubber band stuck to a photograph Unstable plastic slide sheet that has become wavy and discolored
Rubber bands Unknown plastics or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics


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