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 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.

How to Rescue Old Photo Albums

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.

How to Rescue Your Old Photo Albums

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. We are careful to follow these steps with every heritage album we restore.

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.

How to Rescue Your Old Photo Albums

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 microfiber 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 archival-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.

How to Rescue Your Old Photo Albums

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 contact us for a consultation.

30 thoughts on “How to Rescue Your Old Photo Albums (and Keep Them Looking Great for a Long Time)

  1. I want to fix my photo album. The kind that’s put together with long extending add on screws.
    My album is quite thick. Each page is covered with a plastic page protected. Can anyone help or give suggestions on how to repair it?
    Thank you, Yvonne

    1. Yvonne,
      It sounds like you are referring to a post-bound album which can be purchased from Hobby Lobby or Michaels – online or in the store. You may just need to replace the album or the pages if it’s coming apart. Hope that helps!

    2. Can anyone please tell me what this is or what it’s used for? Never seen anything like this. It looks like a hard picture album. Inside paper is black paper that feels like construction paper with what looks like tracing paper. Not sure what it is.

  2. I’m wondering how to archive an album where the photos are many different sizes, from tiny school photos to full page prints, in no particular order. I’ve scanned the first album, one with the self-adhesive pages where not all the photos were removable.

    1. Hi Jim:
      It sounds like you are wondering how to scan photos of various sizes? In that case a flat bed scanner is needed. If you can’t remove the photos from the album then I recommend keeping them attached and scan while in the album. Then use software to crop out each photo.

  3. Hello, I’m trying to restore my grandmothers photo album from the 60’s. It has the string to hold it together and black pages that are getting torn on the sides. I wanted to replace those but I am having a hard time trying to find that correct sizing. Its about 13 1/2 x 10 3/4 black paper. It does have a small fold for the holes for the string.
    Im wondering if you know of anyway I can replace those by finding those sizes or if there is another way to restore them.
    Thanks.

    1. Hi Britney, I think you will need to replace the entire album as I doubt you’d be able to replace just the page. Kolo.com might be a good resource for a scrapbook provider.

    2. I did an old album…..I cut black pages to fit. They were folded at the end, and I paper punched the holes. I bought black photo corners to put the pictures on the pages, and I am pleased with the outcome.

  4. If I want to duplicate the photo album as-is, capturing the full pages (photo album is from the 50s), what would be the best approach to do so? Thank you for any assistance.

  5. My 100 year old photo book has a string tying it together. There are plastic extenders that are broken. I cannot find the string or plastic hollow extenders the string goes through.

    1. Hi Zita,
      Sadly those old albums don’t always pass the test of time!

      I suggest getting yours digitized so that its contents aren’t lost. Then store the original in an archive safe box so that it’s kept safe from harm!

      If you want to talk about how we might help, go to the Contact Us page and set up a consultation.

  6. I carefully removed photos from my mother’s “magnetic” -wax based album pages to scan. I know it is not optimal, but until those photos come my way for good, I just want to replace them, but now the wax is not sticky enough to hold the photos and plastic down. Can you suggest the best way to possibly heat the page enough to hold the page together again? Thank you.

    1. Hi Jenifer:

      I assume you are referring to the photos that you couldn’t remove from the album pages? If so you might try using a page protector to keep the photos together? Otherwise I’d suggest getting those albums scanned asap!

      Good luck! Feel free to sign up for a consultation to chat about how we can help you with this!

  7. Hello, I have my parents album from the early “40’s. The album itself is coming apart and I I want to salvage it in some way. I am 78 years old and unable to do very much my self. it’s just me and my handicapped daughter …..It is one of the old albums where the pictures are attached to the black paper on both sides. It has about 25 pages. Do you ever fix these yourself and what kind of price would I be thinking of? We live in Glencoe , Al.
    Thank you so much for all your information.

    1. Hi Glenda,

      How nice that you have that album – what a treasure it is! Unfortunately, those heritage albums don’t last long and the photo corners stop sticking to the page, the pages don’t stay attached to the binding and often the paper discolors! It’s best to scan the album so that you have a digital copy of it to enjoy in that format. As far as repairing the original album, it’s hard so say if anything can be done without seeing it.

      So you can have us assess it by shipping it to us. Or if you’d rather get more information before you do that, we can do a video conference call. On the call we can talk about options and you can show the album to me using the video camera. Are you familiar with video conference calls via Zoom?

      If this sounds of interest to you, please go to the Contact Us page on the website and schedule a consultation. Or you can email me at julie@picturethisorganized.com to discuss options via email.

      Glenda, I’d love to help you with this album! Hope to hear from you soon!

  8. Hi, I have an old album that has those sticky plastic on the front of ever pages. How do I scan the pics without destroying the pictures? Which scanner would you recommend? Thank you for you help in advance!

    1. Hi Connie:

      Those sticky magnetic albums are such a problem! If the photos are easy to remove, it’s best to take them out of the album and clean them off so no dust or adhesive gets onto your scanner. Or you can keep the photos in the album but pull the plastic back to avoid glare while scanning. Be mindful of the adhesive – if is’t really sticky then you can also use your camera to scan them so that you don’t get adhesive on your scanner.

  9. Hi Julie, my apologies for the length of my post. I recently found a very old family photo album from the 30s-50s, but some of the photos are from the 1910s and are beginning to disintegrate. The album had the texture of construction paper, the pages were so weak and worn that they were becoming dust and crumbling to pieces. Some of the older photos were beginning to crumble away with the pages, they were all just glued in the center so a lot of corners are missing. By the time I got the images separated from the pages with floss and a thin palette knife, my hands were the same color as the paper. I have them all in an old 30s photo box, separated by tissue paper and a card with their labels and captions written to the best of my ability, and I’ve already ordered a scanner, but I need something really secure to keep these worn photos intact and safe from as much friction as possible. I really don’t have the space to frame them all and some of them are very small or oddly shaped, so I’m at a bit of a loss for permanent storage. Thank you so much for your time and this incredibly helpful post!

    1. Hi Louise,

      It sounds like you are looking for recommendations for storing the photos from the album. I recommend going to either printfile.com or bhphotovideo.com and searching for photo sleeves. There you can search for the size you need. I’d also consider using an archive quality photo box to store them. Each of these vendors carries boxes as well.

      All the best to you!

  10. Hi Julie, Thank you for your post and valuable information. We have an old family photo album, 26 pages, with photos on both sides. We would like to have this album reproduced for family members. The album has black paper and the photos have been glued down with white writing under each photo. Some photos are over 100 years old. We would like to find a place that makes quality reproductions of old albums. Could you please recommend a place?
    Thank you!

  11. Hi, Julie! I have the old album photos of mine and was take them out from the album, so the back of the photo has traces of adhesive. Could you suggest me how to get rid of it properly?

  12. My 40 year old wedding album cover has gotten sticky and peeling. Is there a way to get the pages out and put in a new album?

    1. Hi Christine,

      I’m not aware of a supplier that would sell just the cover or where you could transfer the pages to a new one. You might consider digitizing the album pages and then making a new album using album design software. If you’d like our help with that, please go to the Contact Us page and complete the form to set up a consultation via Zoom.

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