Identifying a Safe Place to Store Your Family Photos and Other Heirlooms

No one wants something to happen to their precious family photos, documents and other irreplaceable heirlooms. They represent your cultural heritage —your roots; and may also hold significant historical value.

They deserve protection so they can be handed down from generation to generation.    

While there are many preservation strategies that address proper storage and organization of family research materials (i.e., photos, fabrics, metals, papers, woods, etc.), the focus of this article is on selection of a safe place to store them.

As a family historian, someone who inherited boxes upon boxes of materials, I recognize there is also a practical side to storing family research materials. After all, we aren’t the Smithsonian.

Let’s be real, we don’t have an environmentally controlled room in our home that can constantly monitor every change in temperature, humidity and dust level. And, we don’t always have a lot of storage options when it comes to physical space.  

But there are two steps everyone can take: (1) Learn about the most common causes of damage to vulnerable family materials; and (2) Select a storage location that best guards against those threats. 

Common Threats      

Beyond catastrophic situations, like fire, flood, tornado or theft, there are a number of contributing threats that can cause damage to your precious materials. Use the following as a checklist of situations to avoid. 

Photo damaged by mold growth
  • Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light (sunlight, fluorescent light). Damage caused by light is permanent, and results include embrittlement, fading and yellowing. 
  • Mold growth, which is fostered by high temperatures and humidity. 
  • Too-high or too-low relative humidity. Fluctuations in relative humidity are particularly damaging, speeding up chemical deterioration and physical damage. A relative humidity that is too low can cause embrittlement and curling. The ideal relative humidity is 40 percent. 
  • Too-high or too-low temperatures. High temperatures cause faster deterioration (fading, discoloration, warping, cracking). The ideal temperature is 60-65 degrees. 
  • Water damage. Protect your materials from water damage, whether caused by nature, broken pipes, leaky water heaters, or overflowing washing machines. 
  • Insects and rodents. Organic materials, such as paper fiber, gelatin, and cellulose are tasty meals for insects and rodents. The messy culprits leave chew marks and droppings. Species likely to cause problems are cockroaches, silverfish, and mice or rats.
  • Poor storage solutions.  Unknown plastics, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, acidic paper products, and magnetic albums can all harm your materials. Use only materials that have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). PAT is the best indicator that the product has been manufactured to strict standards and are acid-free, lignin-free and unbuffered.
  • Folding and bending. Storing items too tightly or in containers that don’t provide adequate protection can result in wrinkles, folds, curling, and breakage. 
  • Attempts to mend or repair damaged photos; or affix photos to scrapbooks. Good intentions to mend or repair a damaged photo or artifact often result in more damage. Tears are best left unmended. Do not use pressure-sensitive tape, white glue, hot gun glue, rubber cement, staples, thumbtacks or anything else to make repairs or adhere items. Also, don’t use rubber bands or non-stainless steel staples or paper clips for organization. 
  • Non-archival frames and mats. They can eat away at the edges of your photos and create fade marks. 
  • Ink pens and adhesive labels. Labeling photos is important. If you must write on the back of a photograph, use a No. 2 pencil or an archival pen. Regular ink pens bleed through the paper and smear. Write on the edge of the back, never on the front. Don’t press too hard and leave an impression. 
  • Gases are given off from wood, cedar chests, cardboard, newspapers, paints, and cleaning supplies. Avoid areas where these may be present. And, separate old newspapers and clippings from the rest of your collection.  
  • Breakage, especially glass plate negatives.
  • Solid particulates. Dirt, dust, pollen, and soot from fireplaces can cause scratches and damage.  
  • Food and drink spills. Accidents happen, so keep your work space clear of food and beverages when working with your collections.
  • Defacement. You may have seen photo where a face or faces were intentionally scratched out or words written on them.  
  • Improper handling. Oils, lotions, dirt, water, and perspiration on fingertips can cause bleaching, staining and silver mirroring. Human handling can also cause scratches, tears, bends, and cracks. Wear a pair of white gloves to protect your photos from this type of damage.

Location Matters

It’s important to create a stable environment for your precious family materials. Avoid places such as basements, garages, storage units, and attics. 

Choose a storage location with more consistent temperatures, minimal light exposure, that stays dry, and is humidity managed. That generally means keeping them in your living space. Some of the best locations would be an upstairs interior closet (where it won’t be damaged from a flood), a metal storage cabinet or under the bed. 

Store off the ground when possible. Use PAT-certified storage solutions. They are stackable and come in a variety of sizes. While you may be tempted to use a clear plastic box advertised to be acid-free, there are no long-term studies on how plastic interacts with photos over the course of a century. It’s safer to use time-tested paper boxes.   

Lineco, 8×10 Tan Museum Archival Storage Box, Drop Front Design. Acid-Free with Metal Edge. Protects Photo Longevity. Organize Photos.
Lineco Storage Carton, 12’’x 15’’x 10’’, Archival Acid-Free Buffered Double Layered Panels, No Adhesive or Tools Needed (Pack of 5) Tan
Samsill 200 Non-Glare Heavyweight Sheet Protectors, Reinforced 3 Hole Design Polypropylene Page Protectors, Archival Safe, Top Load for 8.5 x 11 Inch Sheets, Box of 200

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