How to Rescue Your Old Photo Albums (and Keep Them Looking Great for a Long Time)
If you were born in the 20th century (like me), you probably have some old photo albums that are not in such great shape.
Unfortunately, many of your old photos are may be in danger of getting seriously damaged. If you used “magnetic” pages in your album – the ones with sticky pages that you could cover with clear plastic – your photos might already be in rough shape. Photos on old black paper pages, even with photo corners, might not be faring well, either.
Your photos might be deteriorating, yellowing, or falling out of your albums. None of this is good for your sentimental prints!
You painstakingly, carefully, and lovingly created these albums. Is there anything you can do to rescue these precious memories?
I’m happy to report that there is a solution! You can still enjoy viewing the heritage photos in an album, sharing them with family, and preserving them for generations to come.
The solution is to digitize and archive the photos and the albums. Let’s talk about what those terms mean, and how to do each of them – and I’ll also tell you the story of a photo album that my husband and I “rescued” a few years ago.
What Do Digitizing and Archiving Mean?
Digitizing is the process of using a photo scanner to capture a photo print as a digital file.
Archiving is labeling your photos properly and storing them in an album or a box that is constructed of materials that will protect them from deterioration or loss.
Old photos can lose their meaning if their stories don’t get documented, so you should store your photos in a safe container and put them in a safe place, but also label them so that if they are discovered by future generations, the finder will know their relevance and significance in the family’s heritage.
A few years ago, my husband’s elderly aunt allowed my husband and I to take possession of her extraordinary heritage photo album, which documented her family’s life in Haiti and Germany during the First and Second World Wars.
We offered to digitize her one and only copy of the album, and gave her our sworn promise that we would return the book in its entirety. I think she was nervous, but she trusted us to take care of this priceless album and its contents. The purpose of a heritage album is to pass the book on to future generations, and wanted to make sure the photos and captions in this album didn’t get so damaged that she couldn’t pass them on!
Upon closer inspection, we realized the album and the photos were quickly deteriorating. The materials that her family had used to display the photos in the book weren’t archival quality, so the photos were starting to deteriorate and become discolored.
We developed a plan to upgrade her traditional album to an archive quality album while maintaining the original design, layout and captions. We also planned to digitize all the original photos, so that they could be easily secured, backed up, and shared with future generations.
Here are the steps we followed to digitize and archive her historical album:
Step One: Document the Original Version and Remove the Photos.
Before we removed the photos to scan them, we numbered and took pictures of each album page. These images would be used to re-create the album in its original form in traditional and digital formats.
Once we had pictures of every page, we went through the album, page by page, and removed each of the photos.
As we removed all the photos, we organized them into groups based on page numbers, and placed each group sequentially into a photo-safe box. We separated each group using index card dividers labeled with the page numbers. This organizational system made the scanning process easier and more efficient.
When a photo was stuck tightly to a particular page, we used unwaxed dental floss to ease it off the page by sliding the floss between the back of the photo and the album page. It did require a bit of patience and care, but most of the photos detached easily using this process.
When it became too difficult to detach the photo from the album page, we scanned that image while it was still attached to the album page.
Step Two: Scanning the Photos.
Next, we scanned each of the photos and turned each one into an individual digital file. We set our scanner setting to 600 DPI, since most of her photos were small.
All our photos needed to be dusted off before scanning, since the album hadn’t fully protected them, so we used a very soft micro-fiber cloth that wouldn’t leave lint behind on the prints. You don’t want dirt or dust to get onto the scanner, because they will be included in the scan and leave a mark on the image.
As we scanned the prints, we gave each image a file name that matched the album name and the page number.
If you’d like to scan the photos from your own older albums, you can use an all-in-one printer, if you have one. You also should make sure you keep the scanner glass free of dust, and use gloves so you don’t transfer any dirt or oil from your hands onto the prints. If you don’t have an all-in-one printer, there are a number of inexpensive scanners you can get on Amazon.com, at office supply stores, or at BHPhotoVideo.com.
Consider your ultimate goals when deciding on your DPI settings. The DPI setting typically means “dots per inch” and determines the clarity of the photo as you enlarge it.
For most projects, you’ll want to use at least 600 DPI. If you want to enlarge your print photo (digitally, or by getting a larger printed version), start with 600 DPI and consider raising it if you know you want to create a really large version of the photo.
Some quick examples: If you’ve got a 3×3 print, start with 600 DPI – this will be sufficient in most cases for regular backup purposes. Use 1200 DPI if you want a really large version of the original print, but be aware that you will be enlarging everything on the print, including any imperfections or discolorations in the image. If you have a larger print (like an 8×10), then 600 DPI will be just fine.
Step Three: Archiving the Traditional Album and Creating a Digital Copy.
We wanted to create a digital copy of the album, and recreate the original album in its original physical format – this was important so that his aunt could still have a physical album that she could hold in her hands and show to guests and family members. This process of recreating the original album in a safe and protected way is called archiving.
For the traditional album, all the original prints were placed onto archive-quality paper using photo corners, then slipped into page protectors. We scanned each caption with her handwriting to keep the album feel personal and original, and added printed-out versions of those captions to the album in the appropriate spots.
If you’d like get your own archive-quality paper and photo corners, you can get both at Hobby Lobby, ArchivalMethods.com, or Michael’s.
Once we completed the recreation of the traditional album, we finished off the entire process by scanning each page of the album. Once we were done with that step, we also had a digital version of the album to share and backup.
The once-deteriorating album is once again a family heirloom that is proudly displayed and shared with friends and family!
Protecting and Backing Up Your Albums
If you’ve got old albums sitting in closets or on bookshelves, you may want to archive and digital them using this process. It does require a bit of patience and organization, but it is totally doable for any family.
Of course, if you’d like some assistance with keeping your albums safe and intact, we’d love to help! Just call Picture This Organized for a customized quote.