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A Genealogist In The Archives: Preserving that Old Black Paper Photo Album

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Preserving that Old Black Paper Photo Album


I love family photographs!

Looking into the faces of my ancestors in photographs and wondering what they were like, how they lived and what they did on a daily basis is a huge part of my genealogy research journey.

One obstacle that we might face with our photographs are those old black paper photo albums that look like this:

Price Family Photo Album, Houston County, TN. Archives

These were extremely popular back in the late 1800's and throughout the 1900's. The photographs were either pasted onto the pages or they were inserted with photo corners that are pasted into the album.

We have several of these types of black paper photo albums in the Houston County, TN. Archives. It is very important that these types of photo albums be handled with care and preserved properly. Any home archivist can preserve their own black paper photo albums. But I always like to say that if you don't feel comfortable doing this preservation project yourself, then I highly recommend you consult with an archivist or conservator in your area to help you.

First and foremost, the black paper in these albums is not archival. They are not acid free and are full of chemicals. The paste that was used to adhere the photographs is also not archival and can be damaging to photographs.

The first thought would be to remove the photographs from these albums. STOP!!

I would caution you about removing the photos from these types of black paper albums. I will say that if the paste has worn away or deteriorated enough that the photos come off the pages easy, then removing the photographs would be okay. Otherwise, DO NOT REMOVE THE PHOTOS! Dismantling a photograph album like this should be your last resort.

We know that the pages are not archival but you could do much more damage to the photographs trying to remove them than the paper is doing.

Price Family Photograph, Houston County, TN. Archives

Before you even start, put on GLOVES! When working with photographs, archivist always use gloves to keep the oils and dirt from their hands from getting on the photographs and causing damage. You can use white cotton gloves or regular latex gloves. Do not handle any photographs without wearing gloves.

I would suggest that you first digitize the pages in the photo album. Use a flat bed scanner, digital camera or some other device that allows you to lay the pages flat. Do not use any device that requires you to feed the pages through the device, that could cause damage.

Digitizing and documenting each and every photograph from the album is a great archiving tool. If something were to happen to the album, you will still have the digital images.

Use archival tissue paper and interweave the tissue paper between each and every page. This will create a bearer between the photographs and the adjacent black paper pages.

Interweaving Tissue Paper, Houston County, TN. Archives

Place the entire photograph album in an archival box. You will want to purchase a box that fits the album as perfectly as possible. If the album is moving around in the box, crumple up tissue paper and put around the album so it doesn't move. Do not cram the photo album in too small of a box. You want the album to fit snuggly so it doesn't move at all.

Store the box with the album in a cool, dark and dry place. Never store documents, photographs or artifacts in an attic, basement or someplace where it is humid. Always keep out of the sunlight.

If you are fortunate enough to have these wonderful old black paper photo albums with your ancestor's photographs in them, you have a treasure! So, let's preserve and archive that album so that future generations can enjoy those photographs!



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  1. Thank you for this timely article! I have many of these albums from various generations of my family and wondered whether to remove the photos that were not loose. Glad I read this!

  2. Jan, I am glad my post could help you. Thank You for reading my blog!

  3. I have a black paper album like this where the paper has adhered to the face of the photographs on the next page. Some have later come loose but have residue of the black paper on the front of the photograph. Others are still stuck to the black paper or another photograph on the facing page. How should I deal with this? Thank you for any suggestions.

    1. Cathi, I am so sorry to hear this. I would suggest that you seek out a conservator in your area. You can usually find a name and contact information from your state archives. Either they will have one on staff or they will know one that you can contact that they use for their records. I would not advise trying to fix it yourself. Hope this helps.

  4. What are your suggestions if the photos have come loose and you're not sure where they were in the album? My album is not labeled in any way, and the corners are still there but they are stuck shut and I'm not able to put the photos back into the corners.

    1. Lisa, the photo album I used as an example in this blog post has photos that came loose and were just stuck in the back when it was donated to us. I would suggest that you encapsulate the photos in archival plastic sleeves. Then use plastic paper clips to clip the photos to the back or front cover. If the covers are not in good condition to hold the clipped photos then I would put the photos in the archival box where you are going to store your album. I would also be sure to document the fact that the photos had fallen out and the order could not be determined and put that with the album as a citation for your descendants. Hope this helps.

    2. Thanks. It is always possible that loose photos did not come from the album at all.

  5. When I inherited a pile of old photos, I separated them by type, size and style of photo and found that I had several distinct group of photos. In each small pile, I was able to I D a few places, people or things that helped me put dates and people together. Like a jigsaw puzzle! And some photos have a deleloped date on the border, or you might I'd something else. Didn't solve all, but 75 percent was pretty good.

  6. Sounds like you really had a great system! I have several of those photos that have the developed date on the border, that really helps in dating and identifying the photographs. Thanks for reading my blog!

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  8. You blog is full of such good information, thank you. My Gradfather recently passed away and I am trying to find a modern acid free version of the “antique” photo albums with the black paper. My mother keeps saying the 12x12 albums are too small compared to the old ablums. Were the vintage ones bigger? Do you have any good suggestions on where to find some on the internet? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  9. Thanks so much for the blog post. Really Cool.

  10. Valuable information in your blog and I really appreciate your work and keep it up dude. Album Design Software

  11. Found this just in time. I'm sitting here with an exacto knife ready to start pulling photos from the tattered pages!