Action Plan – Three – Storage and Cleaning
Remember when I said: ‘Photographs will fade, no matter what you do. Paper will deteriorate, no matter what you do.’ But you can slow down the process by avoiding their exposure to heat, light, humidity and pollution.
Only way to do this is by storing them properly. Firstly, consider the place:
- Areas with high risk of leaks should be avoided: this includes walk-in-robes or any cupboards which have a shower or laundry on the other side of their back wall. This also includes any roof space (attic) or areas under the house (basement, cellar, garage), as roofs can leak and cellars can flood in heavy rain.
- Areas that get very hot and humid, followed by cold, dry temperatures should be avoided: again, this largely means any roof space and under the house.
- Avoid areas around fireplaces, heaters, dryers etc.
- A good rule of thumb is storing precious photographs and documents where you are also comfortable, not too hot, cold, wet or dry: usually the living-room, the bedroom or even the home office.
Secondly, think about what to use to store everything: There are many good and save options for storing photographs and documents, depending entirely on your personal preference and your budget.
- Archival boxes: Boxes can be out of metal, cardboard (lignin free, acid free, un-buffered cardboard) or plastic (Polyester, Mylar, Polypropylene, Polyethylene or Tyvek plastic, but not PVC, which is the plastic with the strong smell, so a box from the Dollar Shop won’t do).
- Albums: They are the most popular storage medium for photographs. Simple acid-free and magnetic-free slip-in albums are a great option to both keep your photos save and be able to look at them without directly touching them. Again, make sure you choose an album made of Polyester, Mylar, Polypropylene, Polyethylene or Tyvek plastic, but not PVC. Archival storage albums are more expensive than conventional albums, but they can well be worth the investment. They are available at most archival suppliers (and here), some office supply stores and good quality scrap booking places.
- Envelopes: good quality acid-free, high alpha-cellulose papers that are buffered against changes in pH have proven to be most satisfactory for enclosing photographs and documents. Avoid envelopes with the seam down the center and make sure the glue of the lip does not touch the photo, ideally, just cut the lip off.
Now it’s time to look at the state of your photographs and documents. It is certainly not necessary and not really the idea to make an old document look absolutely new and pristine, however, gentle surface cleaning sometimes improves the overall appearance, and it can also remove substances that could eventually cause damage to the paper or be transferred to other papers during handling.
Just to clarify at this point: When I talk about ‘documents’ I am referring to manuscripts, letters, maps. This does not include newspapers, books of any type or fine art prints, drawings or paintings. I have no expertise in any of those, and I would not consider them for any type of DIY surface cleaning. If you need advice on that, please consult a professional conservator.
Tools for Surface Cleaning
Brush: a clean, soft brush is great for giving dusty photographs or documents a gentle wipe over. The brush used for surface cleaning should not be used for anything else. If a brush was used on mouldy material it should be labelled and kept separate and not used for anything else. Never use the brush wet.
Scalpel: a scalpel with a pointed tip or a craft knife are excellent for picking off little insects or insect excretions as well as rust deposits, as they would be left by rusted paper clips. These rusty stains are not only ugly but could also be an ongoing source of damage to the paper. It is a good idea to very carefully remove them. Needless to say to be very, very, very gentle when using a scalpel on a photograph, you don’t want to scratch the surface.
Erasers: good quality erasers can do wonders. Best would be a non-coloured one, these are available as solid blocks and in kneadable form. These kinds are used for art purposes and are available in good art stores. Ask a shop assistant for help if you’re not sure, as there are many types. With erasers it is important to use them very gently only and make sure to not leave any residues. Again, be very careful with photographs. Generally, I avoid using an eraser on the photo itself, but I have used them on the white frames around old photographs and on their backs to remove some dirt and pencil writing.
Sticky tapes and any sort of glue are a nightmare. Sticky tape can stick things together that are not meant to stick. Old sticky tape falls off but leaves ugly marks and the residue keeps eating away on the materials underneath. Use the scalpel or craft knife to cut away sticky tape that is already loose. Other than that there is not much you can do, resist the urge to scratch it off! Learn the lesson and never, ever use sticky tapes or glue on your documents or photos!
Mildly mouldy documents or photographs definitely need a surface clean. Mould goes dormant in low humidity, so don’t attempt this in sticky Australian summer months when humidity is high: use gloves and a particle mask (from the hardware store), separate all items and spread them out in a well ventilated room, away from children and pets, and let them dry. Mould is dry when not smeary or smelly. Brush off the mould with a separate dry brush, don’t forget to wear your mask. Dealing with mould is a delicate process and requires careful work hygiene to avoid contamination. If you decide you have too many items that are mouldy, consider digitizing them as they are, and then disposing of them altogether. If you are going ahead with the process of cleaning them, remember to check back on them regularly, as mould is often dormant, but not dead, and can bloom again in high humidity. At all times, keep them separate from your non-infected documents and photographs.
This is a big subject, I hope I didn’t scare you too much 😉 Next one will be more fun, I promise.
Coming soon: Action Plan – Four – Digitizing and Labelling