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Frequently Asked Questions

What role do storage materials play in the longevity of a photograph or negative?

Proper storage materials are essential for long-term stability of photographs and negatives. They provide much needed physical support and protection for fragile objects, and at the same time act as a barrier between the photograph and a potentially unstable environment. It is of utmost importance that storage materials be known to be unreactive to the photographic material. Much damage has been done in the past through the use of reactive materials such as acidic groundwood pulp sleeves, rubber bands, paper clips, pressure-sensitive tapes, and poor-quality adhesives such as rubber cement or animal glue.

Storage materials can be either paper or plastic. All photographic storage enclosures should have passed the photographic activity test to determine the materials’ level of inertness. This test is specific in ANSI NAPM 1T 9.16-1993 and consumers should contact suppliers to see if their products comply.

What are the major factors effecting the permanence of a photograph?

Many factors influence the permanence of a photograph. Two of the most important are proper storage materials and a safe environment. By controlling these two factors, the deterioration of a photograph collection can be greatly reduced and its longevity greatly enhanced.

What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of using paper enclosures to protect photographic materials?

Paper enclosures are opaque, protecting the photograph from light. However, this makes viewing difficult, since the photograph must be removed from the enclosure before it can be viewed. This increases handling and subsequent abrasion and fingerprinting of the image.Paper enclosures are porous, protecting the photograph from the accumulation of moisture and detrimental gases. This is especially important for cellulose nitrate and early safety film negatives, since the gases generated by the deterioration of these support materials are harmful to photographic materials.

What effect can the environment have on a photographic collection?

Various aspects of the environment, such as relative humidity, temperature, air purity, and light, influence the stability of a photograph collection.

Relative humidity is the single most important factor in preserving photographs from chemical deterioration. High relative humidity speeds detrimental chemical reactions, leading to much of the fading and discoloration visible in photograph collections. Relative humidity should be kept below 50%; ideally it should be 35%. Stable conditions are very important.

Temperature control is important mostly because of its influence on relative humidity. High temperatures will speed up chemical deterioration. The recommended compromise temperature for the storage of photographs and the comfort of people is 68 degrees F. Lower temperatures are desirable, especially for color materials. Sharp fluctuations in relative humidity and temperatures should be avoided. By using folders and boxes, the effect of environmental fluctuations on the photographs can be minimized. The use of dehumidifiers and humidifiers can also be helpful. Avoid attics (too hot) or basements (too damp) for storage areas. Storage in an interior closet would be much better. Do not hang or store photographs on exterior walls, in bathrooms, or over heat sources.

Air purity is particularly crucial in a city environment. Harmful chemicals as well as particulate matter can damage photographs. Ideally, air should be filtered for these materials and dust should be kept to a minimum.

Metal cabinets are preferred over wood because wood generates harmful gases. If wood is used, it should be sealed with polyurethane or water-based acrylic paint. Keep photographs away from fresh paint fumes, plywood, cardboard, and janitorial supplies. Light can cause embrittlement, yellowing, and fading in photographs. Direct sunlight is the most harmful; incandescent (tungsten) lighting is preferred to fluorescent. Avoid hanging photographs where they will be exposed to direct sunlight or to fluorescent lights. Ultraviolet-filtering Plexiglas is recommended for use in framing any photograph which is on long-term display.

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