The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Preserving Your Treasures
Digital photography has made it much easier to capture special moments in our lives. Folks who carry camera phones can always be ready to point and shoot everything from an impromptu family football game to a carefully staged portrait of folks in matching sweaters. There is no longer the need to worry about having only two shots left on a roll of film during the school play or coming back from the drive-through Fotomat or drugstore with fuzzy prints. The holidays provide great opportunities for lots of picture taking. As the season is winding down, now can be the perfect time to organize recent digital images you’ve made, while events and memories are still fresh in your mind.
- Make the time. Set aside an afternoon or evening to focus on your digital images.
- Transfer them to your computer from your phone or digital memory card. Quite often you only need to connect your camera to your computer to conduct a step-by-step transfer to it. There also are a variety of image software programs to do this on a PC or Mac. These programs can manage your images by date, location, or name, and provide editing functionality such as sharpening, cropping, and red-eye removal.
- Be aggressive about deleting bad images. Delete blurred, duplicate, or unwanted photos. This can be done on the camera before you transfer pictures to the computer or after. If you do this on the camera, you don’t have to worry about the need to delete an image twice.
- File names. Photos usually import into computers with a string of letters and numbers that is part of the camera’s default naming standard such as DSCN0070.JPG and provide no description about the images themselves. Some newer cameras do allow you to set some of the naming formats. Consider renaming the set of images to something more meaningful. Some options include the date, the name of the person or event or some combination of all of them. I recommend at least including the date in some manner. 122010_1.jpg 122010_2.jpg Max122010_1.jpg Max122010_2.jpg NewYears122010_1.jpg NewYears122010_2.jpg Another option is to group the images into named folders within the 'My Pictures' folder on the computer or within the image management program. In some instances you can use batch processes to name the files and/or folders. Be consistent once you adopt a naming standard.
- Metadata (data about data). Some programs also provide the option to add keywords and other information about an image. Facial recognition is another feature with some packages that allow you to assign the name to a person and the program will match up other photos of that person in your files (it is not perfect and will select other people in some instances). This additional data can make searching easier.
- Multiple copies. Even if you do not plan to print out your images, you can store copies with an online photo sharing service and share them with others.
- Print out the best ones. I still believe in printed images, and there are a number of physical stores or online photo printing companies that will create prints
- Backup. Don’t rely only on the images stored on your computer or device. While you may have the images on a photo sharing site mentioned above, also keep copies on CDs, external hard drives, or thumbdrives. And don’t forget about these backups either as you change hardware and software. Investing a little time now to organize this year’s holiday memories will pay off in the future.
When you’re all gathered together, sometimes there are just too many cooks in the kitchen, or younger siblings underfoot. Not everyone is into football or jigsaw puzzles, so why not gather together a couple of people from separate generations and branches of the family tree and do some photo identification and preservation? Set aside an hour between or after the meal to pull out a photo album, scrapbook, slides, family film and video, or those love letters in shoeboxes tied-up with string. You might already do this as a ritual, but this time you might consider the following questions:
- How are the objects doing? Are they in good condition? Are they in a particular order?
- Would you know who all those people are if an elder parent or cousin wasn’t there to tell you?
- For photographs and film, do you know where the negatives are and if they can be associated with those pictures?
- Is there information such as names, dates, or places that can be read off of their envelopes or cans and transcribed in pencil to an album page or added onto a new label?
- For albums, do the album pages seem stable or are they crumbling or showing obvious deterioration? Are photo corners holding or coming loose and causing photos to slip around and into the margins? If so, do you have an opportunity to house them in a new acid-free album that is more appropriate for permanent storage?
- Might you think about selecting some of these to digitize so that everyone can have a copy?
Over the past few months, we’ve been putting more and more tips up to address all of the above. Simply click here or on our “conservation” tag to pull up all our posts on this topic. You can also watch some clips we’ve released on our YouTube channel, follow our tips on our Facebook page, or check out the Archives Month lectures we’ve webcast that include tips on video and digital archives. Outside our pages, you can also follow the preservation of one family’s archive of love letters being treated at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts where the one of the family members works. Our colleagues at the National Archives and Records Administration have some great tips on preserving family archives, and here’s one specifically on scrapbooks by the Florida State Archives (with great pictures). As an example, my mom who is retired and has a bit more free time than I do, came into work with me on the day after Thanksgiving in order to do a long-desired project—preservation rehousing of her own childhood photos. So I invited her to bring the most important album (a traditional black-page album with side-ties and small black and white photos) with her to my lab where I could show her how to use simple tools, such as a microspatula, gloves, and photo corners, but she could do the bulk of the work herself, while I took advantage of the quiet to close out some files and projects. In under an hour, she became confident in handling, removing, and placing the vulnerable photos in new pages with Mylar photo pockets, and adding a place to transcribe and add descriptive information so that someday I can better remember these people and places. I rarely suggest taking apart an original album, especially if it has original handwriting and/or the photos or clippings are glued overall to a page. But in our case, the album was in very poor shape, and undistinctive. If it had been printed with names or dates, perhaps we would have saved at least the original covers. In contrast, see a discussion about another family’s album over on the Smithsonian Magazine blog, Around the Mall. Happy gatherings, everyone.
During the Archive's Month coverage, we sent out our first video describing how to remove photographs from magnetic, or "sticky," album. As a follow-up to that, we brought back Smithsonian Archives’ Conservation Fellow, Anna, to advise us on how to store photos once they're removed from the albums. This is part of an ongoing series we coined, "Preserving Your Treasures," which will show you some of the techniques we use here at the Archives to preserve and organize the collections of the Smithsonian. Enjoy! For resources on archival materials, visit the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute website.
As many of you may know, last week, as a part of the Smithsonian's October Archives Month celebrations, Smithsonian Institution Archives experts answered your questions about your own personal archives. The Facebook Q&A session we held over at the main Smithsonian Facebook page was a great success, and so we wanted to highlight some of the interesting questions that came out of the session. A big thank you, again to you all for your wonderful questions, and a big thumbs up to our two experts, Nora Lockshin, SIA's Paper Conservator, and Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA's Electronic Archivist, for taking the time to answer these questions.
Q: How do you remove photographs from an old album that is falling apart or damaged?
A: It depends on what type of album the photographs are in. But before you remove any photos from an album, make sure that you note any inscriptions with names, dates, and places from each album page, and consider taking a high resolution picture of each page so that any information can be remembered and recorded. If you are removing photos from a "magnetic" or sticky album, one of our Conservation Fellows at SIA cooked up a handy-dandy video last week demonstrating how to remove photos from these albums with floss. If you are removing photos that are held in by photo corners, Nora notes that these photos can usually be removed "by very carefully slitting the fold of the 'photo corner' with a thin flat metal spatula or a very thin and rounded butter knife (not a thick or pointy one!). Be sure to hold the tool flat and parallel to avoid gouging the photo itself. You can protect the photo by covering it with an index card while you work at the photo corner. Do this all the way around rather than trying to flex the photograph itself. You can also slide the tool under the photo and photo corner and sometimes the corner will just pop off from weakened adhesive (sometimes they have come off already). If the photo is stuck directly to the page, then you can try to see if the tool can slip through the adhesive but you risk tearing the photo or splitting its layers, so go very slowly and keep your eye on level with your tool, watching and feeling for resistance or tearing at all times."
Q: Two of my photos are stuck together. What is the best way to get them unstuck?
A: Nora notes, "Unfortunately, depending on what kind of photos you have and how they became stuck together (a condition we call 'blocked'), they may be very difficult to get apart without further damage. Do not try to use water to separate images that are stuck together because the pictures probably became stuck together due to high humidity or contact with water, and the very many different types of photographs through the centuries can react very differently to water. Water will soften the image coatings and image itself, and the dyes if there are any, or writing inks that may be on the backs of pictures. These could easily fade or change in water and spread into the other pictures, and also photos become very vulnerable when wet – you could end up separating layers within each photograph. If you don’t have negatives for these anywhere, and the images are unique and precious to you, you should consider contacting a photograph conservator through the professional organization the American Institute for Conservation, and click on Find a Conservator and How to Select a Conservator to find a professional conservator in your geographic area."
Q: What is the best way to store old photographs?
A: There are a few options for storing old photographs, Nora says, "from new albums to organizing photos in envelopes, or clear sleeves that wrap around the photograph and have adhesive on the sleeve to affix to the album. You should look for supplies made only photo-safe components of plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene, or Mylar/Melinex polyester) or acid and lignin-free paper. Beware of applying adhesive directly to a photograph, even if it says “acid-free”. Adhesives should never touch the original, and acid is not the only problem associated with self-stick tapes." These can then be placed in an archival folder or photo album. The Smithsonian does not recommend any one archival supplier, but you can do a Google search for supplies, or there are lists online from our colleagues in the Smithsonian and the National Archives and Records Administration of suppliers that you may contact.
Q: What is the best way to store family papers or documents, such as old marriage certificates?
A: Nora recommends choosing an envelope or L-sleeve made of the materials mentioned in the above question about storing photographs. "If you choose plastic, choose a document holder that has a piece of paper or acid/lignin free insert for behind the certificate. This will give the support the fragile document needs and also absorb acid."
Q: Should I take digital photographs of analog photographs, documents, etc. as a cost effective way to preserve and store these items for additional "back-up" and peace of mind?
A: Lynda notes that taking photographs of items is one way of digitizing items, especially when those items are very fragile. Another option for that material that is in good shape, is to scan it. Lynda recommends saving those digital images onto a computer that is backed up, and to keep the images on external media, such as a thumb drive or external hard drive: "Multiple copies are wise. Don't rely only on a photo-sharing service online. You will also need to plan for future upgrades with your hardware and software to make sure you can still access the images."
Q: If I am going to scan items in order to preserve them, what resolution should I scan them at, and what file format do you recommend?
A: Lynda says, "For images we use no less than 600 ppi to yield a minimum of 6,000 pixels along the long axis, as part of our best practices. For example, images more than 10 inches in length should have the resolution set to 600 ppi. Color is saved as 24-bit TIFF and grayscale is saved as 8-bit TIFF. TIFF is a lossless format, while JPEG uses lossy compression, meaning a loss in quality when edited. These TIFFs will create large files and depending on your needs, a minimum of 300 ppi could work. Documents can be saved as PDF/A (A for Archival) or PDF. Again, 300 ppi should result in a good quality file." You can also find some great tips from SIA on digitizing your items here .
Q: I have a large quantity of important documents that I want to scan, but I don't want to do it myself. Can you recommend any companies that I can trust to keep my materials safe while creating archival quality scans?
A: As noted before, the Smithsonian does not recommend any one archival company. However, a quick internet search using keywords such as “digitization of family papers,” “conservation,” or “preservation” should yield results. The "Find a Conservator" feature at the American Institute for Conservation may be helpful and the Regional Alliance for Preservation also maintains a list of public and private archival companies who could provide this service. Our expert notes, "You want to look for a vendor that has experience, good equipment, quality assurance steps, customer recommendations, and follows industry standards. The company will provide you proper shipping and handling tips."
Q: I'm trying to scan some of my old documents, but I noticed that they're moldy. What should I do?
A: If the objects are of low-value, you might consider making a high-quality scan or photocopy and then dispose of the item if the mold is presenting a health hazard or a hazard to other collections. A good place to start before you move ahead, is to read up a bit on mold in this helpful pamphlet from our colleagues at Lyrasis. Nora has specific advice about working with the moldy documents: "If the moldy material seems dry to the touch and not smeary or highly smelly, it is probably dormant. But still consider wearing an N-95 rated particle mask (available at hardware stores) when you handle it. If your work surface is not cleanable at the end of the day with a bleach solution (10% in water), you can lay out the materials on a disposable surface such as clean unprinted newsprint (available at shipping/moving stores) and gently wipe the documents with cotton balls on both sides and then discard the wiping materials & newsprint on the same day. Be careful of any rips in the paper that may catch on the cotton, and do not use this approach if the writing or drawing is in soft pencil, charcoal, pastel or other media that may smear! For the scanner, have several static-attracting dust wipes to wipe the surfaces at the ready. These can be washed in a bleach solution and reused in the future. Avoid the use of ammonia and bleaches near photographs and documents as the fumes can affect the silver and dyes! . . . Lastly, be sure to keep the documents in a clean, airy, stable environment. Mold is most often dormant, not dead, and can bloom again in elevated relative humidity over 50%."
Q: I have an old 35mm family film that I would like to convert to DVD, but I can't find any company or resources online. Do you have suggestions?
A: This is a problem that so many of us have. Nora recently discovered a preservation resource list that she liked on the Home Movie Day website, which is maintained by the Center for Home Movies organization. She recommends that until a film like this is digitized, "be gentle with the film and don’t try to project it until you find out more, because film can become brittle and shrunken and no longer fit sprocket holes. Wearing gloves, you can try to unreel a couple feet into the film and see if you can make out anything more significant, but since its not actually on a reel, keep it flat on a surface, because this is pretty risky."
Q: Is there a way to capture a record of how my old social media profiles (like MySpace) looked and the information they contained before I shut them down?
A: Lynda says, "SI Archives and other organizations are exploring various archival solutions right now with social media sites. There are numerous issues to consider with third-party sites, such as restrictions on crawling (capturing a site using a software tool like Heritrix or HTTrack), who owns the content, what the host can do with the content, etc. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for every social media site. If you are looking for something simple, you can create a PDF snapshot of the page. There are a number of options available for capturing your Tweets as well, including Searchtastic and Twapper Keeper. In the meantime, Facebook announced a few weeks ago that it was enabling a feature for users to be able to download all their information. Perhaps some other sites will follow suit."
When Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives archivist, Rachael Woody, was interviewed earlier this week about today's Archives Fair, she mentioned that dental floss can come in handy when it comes to removing photos from magnetic, or more aptly named, "sticky" albums. I for one know that all of my family photos are in "sticky" albums, and from the number of tweets that were sent around following Rachael's interview, a lot of you find yourself in a similar predicament. Thanks to the Smithsonian Archives' Conservation Fellow, Anna, we were able to shoot a quick "how-to" video on removing photos from "sticky" albums. It's a little rough, but we wanted to get the information out to you sooner than later. In the next two weeks, we will post a follow-up video with tips on storing photos once they're they're free of those sticky pages. We hope you enjoy the first of what we hope to be many videos with tips on preserving your home collections.