How to Preserve Old Letters & Pictures

Written by maria ciubotaru
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How to Preserve Old Letters & Pictures
Well-preserved old letters and photos are cherished by many generations to follow. (Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)

Pictures and letters are precious keepsakes that help us know our history and immortalise unique moments in our lives, such as a child's birth, a wedding or a first kiss. But these beloved memories are perishable and need special care in order to keep them intact. Here are a few things you should know about how to preserve your old letters and photos for generations to come.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Acid-free Mylar film
  • Acid-free paper
  • Acid-free folders
  • Acid-free box
  • Acid-free archival albums
  • Acid-free envelopes

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  1. 1

    Take the photos out of their boxes and albums sitting in your basement, attic, under your bed or even mounted on the walls. The light, humidity, temperature differences, the acids in papers, plastics wood and even pests can damage your photos, causing them to crack, peel or curl.

  2. 2

    Store your photographs in a climate-controlled environment, preferably in an air-conditioned, dark room or a safe deposit box in the bank. The optimal temperature is 68°F (20°C) with humidity levels of up to 50 per cent.

  3. 3

    Place the pictures in archival acid-free albums that have picture-pocket pages made of a safe plastic. Avoid albums with magnetic pages as they contain a high acid glue that will deteriorate the photos, depriving you of your past. Alternately, use a filing system and acid-free boxes custom-made to accommodate between 500 to 1,000 prints. Last but not least, you can encapsulate the prints in Mylar film, an acid-free polyester film.

  1. 1

    Use the same tools and procedures when storing old letters as for the photographic materials.

  2. 2

    Photocopy or scan all original documents to ensure at least you have a copy.

  3. 3

    Dust the letters gently with a clean, dry cloth and place them in an acid-free box for storage. Alternately, file them by date and place them in acid-free folders or notebooks. These make it easier to organise and preserve them, as they are portable and easy to read.

  4. 4

    Protect the letters by using top-loading Mylar sheet protectors. If storing more than one document in a sheet protector, separate them with a sheet of acid-free paper.

Tips and warnings

  • Buy plastic folders from polyester, polypropylene or polythene and avoid PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic that are usually found in "store-bought" binders. These emit hydrochloric acid and cause irreversible damage.
  • Do not store the photos and old letters in your home's attic or basement. The attic's high heat and humidity in the summertime followed by cold and dry weather in winters can irreversibly damage them by separating the image from the paper and making documents brittle. Also, the humidity in the basement makes them stick together, while the insects and rodents will feed on the gelatin and cellulose in the photographic emulsion.
  • Avoid exposing the letters and photos to anything containing sulphur dioxide, fresh paint fumes, plywood or cardboard. Do not use rubber bands, paper clips or tape to stick them together and avoid storing them in acidic paper envelopes and sleeves.
  • Finally, avoid displaying your photos on the sunniest walls in your house and if possible, place them in metal frames rather than wood.

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