03 January 2014

Friday's Faces From the Past - Keeping Clues in Place

I thought I’d take a moment to quickly discuss the challenges of old photo albums. I’m not talking about those horrible ‘magnetic’ albums with the sticky pages and plastic that holds the photos in place, but those albums with black or dark brown ‘construction paper’ pages. They may be 100 years old, or older, and the photos in them may look fine but the acid in the pages are slowly degrading the images and the paper they are on.

As an Archivist, I’ve de-mounted my fair share of photographs and other items from albums and scrapbooks. It’s a tedious process but one that, in the long run, will preserve the materials longer. The key is in ensuring that the order in which the items were placed in the album is maintained. It is essential that this be done to maintain the context in which the photographs were added by whoever created the album.

Obviously if the images are identified you're well ahead of the game. Simply transferring the information to the back of the photo, using a photo pencil of course, is fine. But if there is no identification it becomes even more critical to keep the images in the order they were in the album. As we all know, it’s rare that someone puts random pictures into an album. While you might not know who are in the images, those 2nd and 3rd cousins that are out there may know, or you may realize through clues in the images themselves who is whom. It’s also possible there’s another album somewhere that may have images that are identified which will provide identification for your images.

So before you remove the images from the pages, scan or take a digital image of the entire page. Then as you carefully remove the images from the album use a numbering system to identify their location from the album. As you place the images in acid-free folders or in acid-free photo boxes, carefully note on the back with a photo pencil the location from the album.

I have a 3rd cousin who removed unidentified images, many tin types, from a number of albums and when she presented them to me to scan, she had no idea who the people in the images are or which images had originally been together. I also found several photos my Mom had in her collection which are unidentified. There’s nothing more frustrating for a genealogist than to have these much older photos and simply have no clue who they are!


  1. I have two photo albums like you describe, one with dark brown paper and one with black. The paper in one is really starting to fall apart but many of the photos are still glued down very well. What's the best method to actually remove the glued photos from the page? Thanks.

  2. I also have several photo albums with the pictures glued in them. Most of the pictures are in good shape, so is there a way to remove them without damaging the photos?

  3. My Grandmother had one of these albums with the pictures glued to the black paper. When my Grandfather died we discovered that she was suffering from Alzheimers. She had taken the photo album and cut the pictures out. We can't find some but the ones we found have the black stuck to the back. How can I get it off to see if there is anything written on the back of the pictures? Oh how I wish I had lived closer and had known about the album earlier so that I could have preserved it! Thanks for your post!

    1. Cheri, you'll need to use the techniques I suggest in my latest post. I strongly urge you to digitize the images first, then using a micro spatula or palette knife work around the edges to see if you can get it loose. If you have an incredibly steady hand, you could try using an X-acto knife to gently score the back of the black paper, working only as deep as the paper to try to get it loose (I would do this only as a last resort). If the glue is used all over the back of the image, I'm afraid this won't work, but you can give it a try. And. please let me know how it turns out!

  4. Laura,

    Thank you for this helpful information.

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/01/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-january-10.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  5. Jana, I don't know HOW I missed this *hangs head*. Thank you so very much for being such a wonderful supporter of my blog...I appreciate it so very much!


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