Skip Navigation

Archival Leaflets - Photograph Preservation Basics


Mark Shenise, Associate Archivist

Photographic images play a primary role in the documentation of historical events. They freeze in time those moments that have sacred meaning to both the memory of the individual and the congregation. Often times at local church gatherings many photographs are taken to record a specific event while there is little or no written record to augment the photographic account.

It is the intent of this pamphlet to provide the local church archivist/historian with a basic understanding on how to identify, maintain, research, use, and display their photographic image collection. I have tried to provide a variety of simple yet cost-effective procedures that can be adapted to almost every archival situation that the local church archivist/historian may encounter. It is in no way to be understood that this pamphlet is to be considered an exhaustive guide to the care and preservation of photographs. In fact, just the opposite is true. This is a quick guideline for church volunteers to utilize when time does not permit them to explore and practice in greater detail the professional manner in which to care and store photographic images. At the end of this pamphlet the local church archivist/historian will be directed to various resources that will help the archivist/historian in those situations that demand more careful attention.


No matter what you do you cannot save any image forever. The local church archivist/historian can impede this deterioration process through proper storage techniques. Black and white images that are processed on a paper base last much longer than their color counterparts. Color images are chemically unstable (especially Polaroid prints) and often deteriorate at a much faster rate than black and white images. Even though it may seem like a step backward all historical events that are being documented through photography should at least include some black and white photographs.


To handle an image it is strongly suggested that either a latex or cotton glove be employed. Gloves create a barrier between the photograph and the oils and acids often found on the hands. The photographs should be examined and handled on a rigid surface that is clean and flat to minimize potential damage. Try not to turn the photographic image over too many times since even the cleanest surface can scratch the emulsion or image side of the print or negative.

The most common way for a local church archivist/historian to examine an image is with the naked eye. It would also be beneficial to the archivist/historian to have either an 8x loupe or magnifying glass on hand to help identify more minute problems, especially if the photograph is one of the more important historical photographs in the entire collection. With the above mentioned tools in hand the archivist/historian can proceed to identify potential conservation problems.

Typical terms for the archivist/historian to employ while examining and describing photographic defects may include: fading, yellowing, mirroring (rare for most local church archives), tears, losses, creases, blistering, and frilling. Most of the above stated problems with the exception of tears (total separation of the support binder), creases (deformation of the support binder), and losses (an area where a fragment is missing) cannot be reversed without consulting a professional conservationist. In these cases it is recommended that a professional copy be made for reference and the original image be "lock away" if the image is significant for the history of the local church. Those photographs that have minor damage such as tears should never be taped together with standard office type tape. Proper storage (see below) with specific repair tape such as Filmoplast should be used to correct this preservation problem.

Occasionally the archivist/historian will come across panoramic photographs that have been rolled up for storage. In order to make the photograph useful once more you will need to relax the image. This can be done with a homemade humidifier. Purchase two plastic trash cans that have a tight seal when the lid is in place. One can should be able to completely fit inside the other. Cut three or four slots near the top of the smaller can. Place the photograph(s) that are to be relaxed in the smaller can. Tightly fasten the lid and set the can aside. Measure approximately 2 cups of water and pour the liquid into the bottom of the larger can. Never place any liquid in the smaller can! There should be enough water to cover the bottom of the larger can. Center the smaller can that holds the photograph(s) within the larger can till it rests on the bottom. Close the lid on the larger can. Make sure the seal is tight. Depending on the condition of the photograph(s) start checking the image(s) after a few days. Prior to removing the photograph(s) from the smaller can you should construct a blotter for drying the humidified photograph which needs to be laid out on a flat surface.  The blotter is made by laying out a layer of acid-free paper.  Create another layer on top of the acid-free paper with a layer of paper toweling.  Top this layer with a layer of acid-free paper once more.  You should have a sandwich effect of acid-free paper, paper toweling, and acid-free paper.  Once the photograph(s) is relaxed, and it is a judgement call at this point since you should not wait until the photograph(s) completely unrolls and clings to the side of the can, remove the photograph(s) from the smaller can. Take the photographs to the flat surface.  Place the photograph on top of the previously constructed blotter. Cover the photograph with a top blotter which is constructed in the same manner as the base blotter. Make sure the blotter material overhangs the actual photograph. Once you have your blotter, photograph, blotter components  in place find some heavy objects, namely books, to use as weights.  These weights are placed directly on top of the completed, larger, blotter. Empty the larger can of its water and allow it to air out. In one week check to see if the photograph is relaxed enough to store flat in an acid-free container on a shelf. You may need more blotting time depending on the photograph.


There are a number of ways to store images. There are different costs associated with each method.

    1. Plastic or paper sleeves: Each individual image can be placed in a protective sleeve. If plastic sleeves are to be used it is strongly recommended that the sleeve be made of polyester which is more commonly known by its trade name as mylar (Mylar D or Melinex). Alternatives are available but mylar is more readily available. This is the best way to store negatives. DO NOT USE ANY SLEEVE MADE FROM POLYVINYLCHLORIDE (PVC)! Polyvinylchloride is the base element of most photographic sleeves commonly found in department and discount stores. These sleeves are chemically unstable.  The polyvinylchloride eventually deteriorates which becomes highly acidic and will quickly destroy any image it touches.

    Paper envelopes are a cheaper alternative to plastic sleeves. As with plastic sleeves, not all paper envelopes are created equal. The envelope should be acid-free and if possible lignin-free with a neutral ph balance. Some archival envelopes have an alkaline buffer which is a plus for long term storage. The alkaline is able to absorb some of the more unstable elements from within (acid) and without (pollutants from the atmosphere)

    2. Alternative Cost Effective Storage: Another alternative storage method which is quite common in many archives is for the archivist/historian to preserve and store photographic images in various sizes of acid-free folders and containers (manuscript boxes, record center containers, etc.). If finances are not too tight purcashing acid-free and lignin-free folders and containers should be utilized. The archivist/historian should interleaf each image within the folder with a sheet of acid-free paper. File folders containing images should then be packed reasonably tight within the container.  This way "curling" of the image will not take place. This method is especially useful when storing smaller oversize photographs in the absence of flat file cabinets and mylar. The larger oversized photographs can stored in various flat storage boxes and stacked no more than five high on a standard shelf.

    3. Photographic Albums: If photographic albums are to be used it is imperative that the album measure up to archival standards. This would include a D-ring binder with polypropylene pages that have acid-free paper inserts. The photographs should be mounted on the acid-free paper inserts with archival holder/corner mounts. NEVER PASTE A PHOTOGRAPH IN AN ALBUM! Most glues will causes a chemical reaction that eventually destroys the image you are trying to protect.

    Any negatives or slides that are stored in an album should be placed in a polypropylene box or binder. The pages that hold the image should be polypropylene as well. If these means of storage proves to be too expensive, acid-free paper envelopes will work just as well when placed in a manuscript or smaller flip-top or clam shell box.

    4. Non-paper based images: There are other types of images that the local church archivist/historian may come across that are the exceptions to the above stated guidelines. The most common types include glass lantern slides, glass negatives, and the more rare tintypes and daguerreotypes. With the exception of a tintype, the other processes require special care. The tintype can be filed in acid-free folders while being interleaved with acid-free paper or placed individually in acid-free paper envelopes.  Glass lantern slides and glass negatives need special care as well. The primary reason for this special care is the fragile condition that the glass base provides. There are two ways of storing these images. Common to both types of storage is to wrap the slide or negative in acid-free four flap negative enclosure. If the four flap negative enclosure proves to be to expensive for your budget, the archivist/historian can make their own out of acid-free paper. The next step depends on how the images are to be stored. If the original storage case is in good condition, made from metal or wood and is lined with cloth and wooden dividers, you can refile the newly wrapped negatives back into their original position within the container. If this is not an option the archivist/historian should wrap the image in a four flap enclosure, place the image in an acid-free paper envelope, and file the images in a smaller acid-free container such as a clam shell box or "shoe" box. The main reasons for the smaller container are two fold: One aspect is weight. Glass based images are heavy which makes them very hard to handle if they are in a larger container. The second aspect is storage. These smaller boxes take up less room and distribute the weight more evenly on a storage shelf.

    Daguerreotypes are a situation unto themselves. The primary rule to remember is NEVER disassemble a daguerreotype! Each element by itself within the composition of the daguerreotype is archivally unstable. However, when the elements are kept together as they were originally manufactured this provides a situation that is archivally sound for preservation purposes. You can store these images either in an acid-free folder (if it fits) or in an acid-free artifact container.


Under the most ideal situation all photographs should be stored in an area that maintains strict atmospheric conditions. Such specifications would call for shielded UV fluorescent or incandescent lights with a maximum of 75 watts illumination. The relative humidity should fall within the 30 to 40 per cent range with a temperature somewhere between 40 to 60 degrees. Unfortunately most local church archives could not possibly achieve such an ideal. Therefore a compromise can be made by one of the following two possibilities: 1. A temperature of 68 degrees with 30 to 40 per cent humidity with minimal light in the storage area. 2. If it is impossible to regulate the above mentioned conditions in possibility 1 then a cool, dry, storage area with minimal light is fine. Regardless of the storage medium the archivist/historian should never store any image in an archival container that is in direct light.

When the image is being researched for whatever purpose make sure the researcher is handling the image with cotton gloves and that the lighting in the viewing area is not direct and minimal. This is also true when photocopying an image. Ever time the lamp (especially if it is an older photocopying machine with a hotter lamp) passes over an image it slowly accelerates the fading of the image. Slides and negatives will need direct light in the form of a light box in order to view them properly.  These light boxes can be purchased from a photographic supplier or built from scratch if you are handy enough around a shop.

If the image is to be placed on public display you should make a facsimile (copy) of the original. This will cut down the chances of the image being damaged or stolen. If the archivist/historian needs to display an original make sure it is in a glass enclosure with low light. Never leave any original photograph on display for more than 3 months. If the environmental factors are less than perfect, a shorter duration of display is recommended.


Once you have decided how to store the image you will need to gain information control over that image. This is a two step process that works on different levels. The first step is to identify each image. A rule of thumb to remember is never write directly on a specific image. Ideally this would include the backof a photograph or around the border of a slide, negataive, or photograph. If you must write on a border or the back of a photograph use a pencil and write very lightly. There are specific marking pens for photographic identification that are available in archival catalogs and photographic stores. These are pricey and may not be ph balanced. Check out the specifications of the product before you buy! By writing on the border or the back of a photograph with anything else will cause the ink to defile the image by bleeding through and changing the acidic balance. If you store your images either in polypropylene sleeves, paper envelopes, or interleaved in an acid-free folder, always write on the storage medium (such as the file folder tab) and not on the image itself. All good archival polypropylene sleeves will have a space in which to identify each individual image. Paper envelopes and acid-free folders can easily be identified by writing on the enclosure itself.

The second step is to keep an inventory of each image or series of like images either in a database, word processing file, or paper file. Make sure you have the title of the image, date of composition, photographer, and storage location clearly identified. This will help with referencing, retrieval and refiling in the future.



Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn, Gerald J. Munoff, and Margery S. Long. Archives and Manuscripts: Administration of Photographic Collections. SAA Basic Manual Series. Chicago: Society of American Archivist, 1984.

Wilhelm, Henry, and Carol Brewer. The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures. Grinnell: Preservation Publishing Company, 1993.


Light Impressions Catalog (800-828-5539) The Hollinger Corporation Catalog (800-634-0491)

University Products Catalog (800-532-9281)