We all have them. Old photo albums that conveniently held your photos in place under a protective plastic sheet. Until they didn’t. The sheets became brittle, the adhesive failed, and sometimes the photos got stuck to the page, or damaged from the chemicals in the albums. What to do now?
Supplies needed: old photo albums, cotton gloves, clean work space, new photo-safe album or other storage, photo safe pencil, Post-It notes, dental floss (unwaxed, Teflon kind is best), Flip Pal or flatbed scanner.
1. Gather all your albums of this kind together. Be careful handling them, as they may be brittle and photos may fall out.
2. Pick a starting point. You can work from oldest to newest, or save the most important one first. Others pick a “practice album” that’s less important to get confident in their photo extracting skills.
3. Remove photos from albums, keeping the order and associated captions. If you can’t write (using your photo safe pencil of course) on the back because there’s sticky album residue, attach a Post-It note to the back and write on that. Remember to wear your cotton gloves to protect the photos from the oils that are on our hands, and can cause further damage. (side note, I like using the cotton gloves as a very soft dust cloth on dirty photos – helps to clean before scanning).
4. Some photos may not come out easily. That’s where the dental floss comes in. The most important thing is, don’t force or rip the photos. But, sometimes you can wrap the floss around your two index fingers and use the taught string under a loose corner. Gently saw back and forth and slide the floss deeper under the photo. Many photos can be un-stuck this way. If it’s not going well STOP. Scan the photo on the old album page using a FlipPal scanner at 600 dpi. You may not get anything written on the back, but that’s a fair trade for salvaging the image itself.
Here’s a useful video from the Smithsonian Archive on these processes.
5. Sort the photos you wish to archive. Not all photos are necessarily keepers. Look for quality photos, or pictures that tell a good story, and scan those – keeping the captions too.
6. Because of the sticky mess on the back of the photo, I recommend scanning with a Flip Pal or flatbed scanner. These photos tend not to work well in auto-feed high speed scanners.
7. Organize your scanned photos & add metadata. After all the work you’ve put into this process, you want to make the photos easy to find in the future. That means no gibberish photo names. 1978HalloweenSpider.jpg is a lot more meaningful than 20160309001A.jpg.
8. The original printed photos need to be stored safely too. Use archival safe storage boxes (such as the APPO Legacy Box or something from Archival Methods) and put archival safe paper or glassine envelopes to separate and protect sticky backs.
9. Back up your scanned photos (along with the rest of your digital photo collection) in two additional locations, one of which should be off-site. When you’ve captured all the important information, and have your scanned photos backed up, take a deep breath and throw away the old album and any photos that weren’t worth saving.
10. Enjoy your recovered photos in a photo book, slide show, or photo gift. Share with friends and family on your favorite online site (SmugMug, Forever or Flickr are some of my favorites).