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A Genealogist In The Archives: Preserving Old Black Paper Photo Albums

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Preserving Old Black Paper Photo Albums


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:

Wiseman 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.

Wiseman Family Photo Album, 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 barrier 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 to 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. Melissa, thank you for this wonderful information! My dad left a small black album, mostly of family from the early 1900's, and for several years I've wondered what to do with it. I did scan the pages already and identified some of the relatives. Unfortunately I attempted to remove a couple of glued in pictures to see if there was anything written on the back but stopped when I saw it was ruining the page and the picture. I set the album aside. Now I know what to do, I can preserve the treasure properly!!!

    1. Donna, I am so glad you stopped when you did. It's so tempting to want to peak on the backs to see if anything is written on them. But so much damage can be done. What a treasure you have! Thank You for reading my blog!

  2. Melissa, I have one and only one of these albums. Wish I had more, but I’m grateful to have the one. It documents my Dad's family from the time he was born in 1912 through the 1930’s. I, long ago, scanned each page and placed the images in a digital folder. From there I duplicated the images and cropped and labeled the photos. My grandmother had written notes to identify many of them. I have the album tucked away safely, but must admit I have not used any tissue paper. I will buy some and do that now. Thanks for the tip. Love your articles!

    1. Diane, you have a true treasure. I wish I had just one of these types of albums of old photos. In my own family, we don't have very many photos that survive. Thank You for reading my blog!

  3. Wonderful advice and very timely, since I have a 1917 album from my late father-in-law. Thank you!

    1. Marian, so glad my blog is helping you. Thank You for reading my blog!

  4. Thank you for the advice. I wish I had seen it sooner. I too have about 2 black albums. Most of the pictures were falling out of the album and I was able to remove them with no problem. I put them in archival sleeves and pockets in another album. I came across a couple of pages where I could not remove the pictures, so I was able to put the whole page in an archival sleeve in another album. These are pictures from the 1920s and 1930s. It's the old magnetic scrapbooks that are a real pain.

    1. Hello Fay! Sounds you did exactly what I would have done! I agree, those magnetic albums are terrible. Thank You for reading my blog!

  5. Interesting article but where do you get the tissue paper to put between the pages?