Preserve Old Family Media — 1. Store & Digitize
Updated: Jun 26
Preserve Old Family Media
A Six Part Series
Part 1. Restore & Digitize Overview
Part 1 Restore & Digitize — an overview of: (1) types of old family media; (2) why & how they are being destroyed; (3) why & how they should be properly stored and digitized.
Part 2 - 6 — specific preservation information for each family media type:
Part 2 Photographs — loose and in old albums
Part 3 Paper — handwritten letters, important documents, newspaper clippings etc...
Part 4 Film — negatives & slides
Part 5 Movie Film — film reels
Part 6 Videos — VHS videos & and camcorder videocassettes
1. Old Family Media Collections are...
Our Family Media collections are among our most treasured possessions — they tell stories of who and where we come from, capture memories, and allow glimpses into our lives that we cannot get in any other way.
Family media collections trace back to the mid -19th Century Industrial Revolution when photography, adhesive postage stamps and mass-production of paper from wood pulp, were invented. This lead to the popularity of family photography, letter writing, card sending... and saving them as family keepsakes.
The 21st Century Digital Revolution heralded a paradigm shift from paper and film to electronic and digital. So our 'old' family media collections are anything from rare 'vintage' crumbling, yellowed portraits of great-great-distant relative, through to our —at least 20 year old— 'modern' albums... and all the vintage albums, scrapbooks, loose photos, slides, negatives, films, video tapes and documents in-between!!
2. Old Media is Fragile
Old photos can yellow and curl at the edges and the images fade. They can also be harmed with handling... stained from fingerprints and oils from the skin; damaged from being folded, creased, or torn and scratched and speckled with dust.
Vintage documents can also get stained and are even more susceptible to deterioration, which over time causes the the yellowing and brittleness of old papers (especially newsprint)... and in the worst cases, the crumbling of the paper. The inks can fade or smear, and the paper can easily rip.
Film shrinks over time and will be damaged if run through a projector. Oils from our fingers can breakdown the cellulose in slides & negatives. Slides, negatives, and film reels can also be damaged just from the containers they are stored in.
Video Tape despite being the newest medium is the most at risk. While the tape can warp and curl and get caught up in recorder heads..... a deadlier issue is that magnetic tape eventually loses it's charge along with ALL the data it contains.
3. The Destructive Elements are...
1. Sunlight causes inks & dyes to fade... on paper & photos.
2. Heat interferes with the chemical stability of films & tapes and photo-processing chemicals.
3. Humidity also causes decay, and damp environments are a breeding ground for mold and insects which wreak havoc on all media.
4. Dust particles are very electrostatic-ally attracted to film, & photos.
So ideal storage conditions for most family media are:
— low light... the darker the better to slow fading of inks & dyes.
— regulated temperature... the cooler, the better but at least below 75 F (24 C), the activation temperature of photo-chemical reactions; cooler to prevent film degradation.
— low relative humidity (below 65 %)... to slow decay (hydrolysis reactions in video tapes) and reduce the chances of mold and insects wreaking havoc.
— well ventilated areas, since circulating air can combat mold, dust & other damaging particles.
Wood pulp that is used to make paper contains lignin and other residual acids. Over time, these acids are activated by heat & humidity and interact with paper, film & photo image-making chemicals. This 'off-gassing' in old media products and many of the materials used to store them are contributing to their destruction. Beyond the old albums, scrapbooks and envelopes, old rubber bands, staples and paperclips can also be doing damage. Also, slides, negatives, and film reels (old metal cans) are being destroyed by the containers they are stored in.
Magnetic ... a special 'modern' issue!
Magnetic Albums (also known as sticky albums) were popular in the 70's & 80's but are now destroying the very images they were meant to protect. The cheap cardboard pages, the adhesive, and the plastic covering are all contributing.
Magnetic Tape protected in videocassettes, also introduced in the mid-70's, revolutionized home entertainment (VCR) and family memory recording (camcorders). The problem is that over time ALL magnetic media lose charge . When all charge is gone, so is all data (picture & sound)!!! For video tapes, 30 years archival data storage is most often cited by manufacturers.
Where They are Stored
Although garages, basements or attics tend to be our GO-TO storage places, these are rarely 'climate controlled'... they are less likely to be well ventilated, dustier and fluctuate from freezing in the winter to very hot and humid in the summer.
Ideally we should store our precious family media on the (regulated) main levels of our homes. If the basement is the only option, at least keep boxes of them off the floor. Barring a flood or fire, re-storing them in airtight, lightproof containers will keep them somewhat safe, ... and never touching them again will definitely increase their life-time!
4. Modern Storage Solutions are...
The buzz words for modern photo-related products in the consumer marketplace are Archival, Acid-Free & Photo Safe. While there are no official standards, It is generally understood that:
Archival, when referred to paper- based storage products, means that is made from wood pulp (with a pH above 7) that is acid-free and lignin-free.
Photo Safe when referred to photo albums and other photo products such as paper, plastics, and adhesives meet the Image Permanence Institute standardized Photographic Activity Test (PAT) They provide a downloadable guide with a description ... and I quote:..
"of the standard's requirements to meet the “photo-safe” designation depending on material type (paper, plastic, adhesive, etc.), as well as an illustration depicting which elements of a photograph are most likely affected by harmful components (reactants) in photo storage, display, and labeling materials, and which tests are necessary to detect each of these reactants. for “photo-safe” designation depending on material type (paper, plastic, adhesive, etc.), as well as an illustration depicting which elements of a photograph are most likely affected by harmful components (reactants) in photo storage, display, and labeling materials, and which tests are necessary to detect each of these reactants"
Acid-free does not apply to plastic photo storage supplies, which should be inert and stable. Cheaper plastic enclosures are often made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or vinyl) with plasticizers that make the compound unstable; so in this case Photo Safe refers to inert plastics such as polyester (Mylar), polypropylene , and polyethylene.
On the whole, our 'newer' photos, housed in 'modern' plastic-sleeved albums, are safe. However, the best long-term storage options for 'older' media (slides, negatives, photos and documents and other memorabilia) are photo-safe, archival-quality (acid - free & lignin free) folders, sleeves and boxes that have passed the PAT test. As well as protection from light and dust, the boxes come in a variety of sizes, with metal edges to provide extra stability, and dividers or tabs to help with labeling & organizing your media.
5. Old Media should be Digitized...
These photos, pages, films & tapes hold our most treasured and unique family memories that are meant to be shared and enjoyed across generations! They may be old family recipe books accumulated from past generations or a hand made scrapbook with photos of the whole family. Then there are all the still images on slides & negatives and the motion images on reels of film & videocassette tapes. The stories they tell are worth more than the paper/film/tape they are (im)printed/recorded on... AND much like old photos, film & magnetic tape, our memories fade over time.
Creating digital copies of the originals of these family heirlooms, and backing them up, is the BEST — and sometimes ONLY — WAY to preserve, share and pass on treasured family memories !!
Converting old photos, to digital photo files helps organize and reclaim memories from those bulky attic boxes... They can be viewed without any heavy lifting and uploaded to the cloud to be easily shared with people who are not sitting right next to us in our homes!
Digitizing old film (slides, negatives & video) brings back images that may have been lost for years, for lack of the equipment needed to view them.
Another benefit is that it allows us to digitally restore (think Photoshop) damaged items.... and to handle copies of documents without damaging the originals.
And it is a great backup plan in case of that flood, fire, or other damage in the basement.
6. Digitizing Options Are...
For each media type, there are options to digitize 'in-home' or service the job out. Digitizing is time-consuming and in some cases the choice may come down to a dedication to DIY versus budget to carry out the project... In other cases, the condition of the media, equipment costs and inferior DIY results make using a specialist conversion service the only viable option.
Desktop printers are a fixture in most households and can easily be used for scanning photos and documents... as can smartphones. A film scanner is needed for negatives & slides... or a smartphone with an attachment. Snapshots of film reel frames can also be captured with scanners... but NOT sound. Obsolete playback equipment ( VCR/camcorder) and a video capture device is required for digitizing videos.
There are plenty of professional scanning service options (see Resources) to chose from, which basically fall into three categories:
Drop-Off: national pharmacies (CVS, Walgreens...), big-box stores (Walmart...) and warehouse clubs (Costco, Sam's Club... ) all offer digitizing services.
Online (ONLY) Mail-in: offering all 'standard' analog media format conversion services.
Local/ Conversion Specialist: with more sophisticated equipment, restoration techniques and editing services to deal with non-standard formats and deteriorating media.
Regardless, they all offer different digital file storage/transfer options (thumb-drive, DVD, cloud) AND ALWAYS return the originals. Pricing can vary widely depending on numbers, types and condition etc... Over the last few years several on-line companies have begun to offer "fill-a-box" transfer services for multiple media formats at a fixed price, based on the number of "media items". Most offer discount coupons, so it is worth shopping around. Maybe use cheaper high volume services for simple photo/negative/slide/videotape transfer, AND a specialist service for older/deteriorating media conversion projects.
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To Learn More, Go To:
Blog — to see more posts about Why and How -To preserve, organize, plan and present family media (there are a number in the works).
Resources — for external links, useful information, products, services... and more!
FAQ — this may answer some of the questions you have;
Services — to see the personalized guidance solutions that Digital Kreation offers.
The information presented in this Blog is an accumulation of my own experience and internet searches. I am not affiliated with any of the institutions, services or products that are mentioned.