Collections 102, part 4: how do I store… books and photos

If you’ve been following this series, by now you have a working knowledge of preservation materials and storage options for your family treasures. Last week, the blog touched on textiles. This week’s post takes a closer look at how to care for family books and photos (scrapbooks and albums, too).

Quick version:

  • Books are best stored upright (vertically) on shelves
  • Books and photos should have minimal light exposure to avoid fading
  • Avoid writing on the back of photos
  • Keep food and drinks away while handling items

Scenic route:

Documents and photo storage: The best long term storage solution is to digitize all of your photos and documents. That way, the image and the memory remains even if the original is destroyed. Of course, this does take quite a bit of time and requires sufficient storage space. You could also pay a service to do all the work for you, but the cost does add up.

If that seems like a giant, daunting task, you could always just digitize your most treasured photos. A decent quality flatbed photo scanner will only set you back about $150 and a 1 terabyte external hard drive only about $70. This is a great way to document your photos and who’s who in them without writing on the back of the originals. All you need is time and dedication to the scanning project.

Originals should be housed in unsealed polyester sleeves. The polyester sleeves are great for visual reference of the image without having to handle the photos and do not stick to the surface of the image. Resist the urge to write on the backs with pen or marker. This ruins images as they age. If you must, use a soft-lead pencil, being careful not to press too hard. You don’t want an indentation on the front. A better option is to write in pencil on an archival quality paper and place it in the sleeve with the image.Handling images by the edges with clean, lotion-free hands will help preserve them. Also try to avoid eating and drinking around your project to keep from having unfortunate accidents.

1000x1000The least kind thing you can do to your photos is to leave them in an attic, unfinished basement, or garage. These areas of your home are the worst places for long term storage because they are prone to wild temperature fluctuation, pest infestation, mold, and flooding. If you find your treasures compromised by one or several of these conditions, you might be able to salvage them (and we’ll talk about it in the next post), but it’s easy to avoid.

Book storage: Think like a library; your books are better off situated upright on shelves and not overly cramped or awkwardly leaning. Try to fit them between other books of similar size, out of direct sunlight and in a stable temperature and low humidity level. Remember, if you’re comfortable temperature-wise, your stuff will be comfortable.

Mold and mildew: Don’t ignore that musty old book smell. It suggests the presence of mold or mildew. Identify and isolate the offenders. This is important because active mold reproduces through spores, you can easily have a mold problem spread from one item to many.

Various colors of mold on spine, mold and mildew on cover.

Mold and water damage. images


Mold and mildew need a food source and humidity to thrive. It is often fuzzy or black but it comes in all manner of colors, might look white and chalky, or like an odd stain.

The important thing to remember is that mold in the fuzzy or wet stage is active and could be hazardous to your health. It is best to let the mold go dormant (dry, powdery) before treating it. Please wear a protective mask and disposable gloves when you do.

There are a few ways to deal with this. First, decide if the infected item is worth saving. The easiest way to deal with mold is to throw out the offending item. If the item in question is valuable to you, then quick action is necessary to avoid further deterioration.

If it is wet and moldy, stand the books upright with the covers slightly open with a fan blowing on them to dry out in an area with reduced humidity and room temperature on the cool side. Once dry, remove the mold outdoors, if possible. If it is only moldy, you can place them in the freezer. The cold kills mold spores. Loosely wrap books like a present in waxed paper and tape shut, or interleave books between waxed paper and place in zip top bags.

If you can’t deal with it within 24 hours or the problem is widespread among a lot of items, again, loosely wrap books like a present in waxed paper and tape shut, or interleave books between waxed paper and placed in zip top bags. Pop the items in the freezer until you’re ready. The cold kills the mold spores, but also reduces cover warping from being wet. This will prevent further damage before you get to it. If you’re overwhelmed, there are freeze/ dry mold removal services that can help.

Next post covers emergencies and emergency preparedness. Stay tuned.








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