Beginner’s Guide to Caring for Old Photos, Documents & Books as a Journaler
As a museum curator, I try to help out fellow art and junk journalers by answering their questions about preservation. Often times they’ll get a special book, letters or even photographs that they’d like to preserve or keep safe and want to know how to go about doing that. I’m always happy to help with advice, and feel free to contact me if you ever have a question! But I also thought it would be helpful to go over some of the basics and give everyone a reference guide if they need it.
First things first – all things fade and deteriorate over time. You cannot stop that from happening, you can only slow it down. Our goal is to slow it down by a lot, but even the most talented curator or conservator isn’t magic. So our focus will be on avoiding the big hazards and treating your collection with as much care as you can within reason.
Biggest Hazards to Your Documents, Books & Photos
The biggest hazards to your heirloom and heritage materials at home are as follows:
- Temperature Changes
- Pests & Mold
The good news is, these are the easiest to care for and avoid! Let’s break down the issues and how to resolve them…
Light will cause paper and photos to fade over time. You want to store things in a low or no light area – away from windows and even lamps. The best place to put them is in a light tight box with a cover. If you want to display the photo, try to limit the amount of time and keep it out of direct sunlight. Have it out for a few months, and then put it away. Rotating will help extend the life of the photo and keep it from fading.
One of the biggest dangers to your collection of historical documents and photos is handling. Accidental drops and tears account for a huge portion of this, but even handling objects without obvious and immediate damage can still cause harm over time.
This is because your skin naturally contains oils. Add in soaps, perfumes, and lotions and you actually have a tiny microcosm of different types of oils, alcohols, and other materials on your hands. Each time you touch something, you deposit small amounts of that on to the object you’re handling
Those deposits can react with the paper, leather and other objects you touch and cause damage to the surface. This can result is staining, discoloration, and even the deterioration of fibers over time.
The more handling, the more deposits, the more deposits the faster and more extensive the destruction. Even things like metal are not immune to this process. It’s why you see public statues with discolored areas where people have touched them, and why objects in museums are behind plexiglas where no one can touch them.
Even as curators, we try to limit handling papers and objects as much as possible and we often wear gloves while doing so. At home, just make sure you wash and dry your hands well before handling old papers and avoid using lotions or perfumes immediately before doing so.
Temperature changes, especially if they are extreme (more than a few degrees) can cause paper and bookbinding to become brittle over time, can cause adhesives to fail, and can create an environment where mold can grow.
You want to store important photos and papers in a place that keeps a steady temperate most of the year – ideally around 68*F, but as close to a regulated “room temperature” as you can manage is good too.
Keep these things away from bright lights, heaters or air conditioners, vents, etc. Be careful if you plan to use things like heat guns or embossing tools as well. You want to keep them a safe distance from materials you want to preserve.
Keeping moisture away from your photos and documents is also important. Moisture can cause paper to swell which can stretch and destroy fibers, loosen adhesives and cause colors to fade, run, and stain. Most importantly moisture creates an environment where mold can grow – something that is very difficult and sometimes impossible to get rid of once it blooms.
If you live in a high humidity climate, I recommend investing in a dehumidifer and keeping any precious documents, books and photos in a room where a dehumidifier is helping to regulate the humidity. This will make them last longer and keep them safe from other potential hazards like mold.
Pests and Mold
Pests and mold are also a danger. I probably don’t have to tell you silverfish love paper, but so do moths and a number of other bugs. There are even bugs that have a special affinity for leather and textiles, called dermestids. Mold also loves moist paper and leather book covers, and can grow quickly on them.
I know many junk journalers like to pick up books at thrift stores, garage sales, and other similar places. The prices are great and at a book sale you can sometimes get a whole bag of books for a dollar or less. The only problem is that sometimes these books have been neglected for a long time, and have been exposed to bugs and mold without the original owners even noticing.
If you bring books home that have active mold or bugs, and put those items with the rest of your collection you can run the risk of having the mold and bugs spread to more books, papers and supplies. To avoid this, make sure you give everything a thorough check for evidence of mold and bugs.
If you suspect that there’s mold or pest activity, the easiest thing you can do is throw the suspect materials out. But if you can’t bear to do that, you can place the materials in a sealed plastic bag with all the air squeezed out. Put the bagged materials in your freezer, and leave them in there for 7-10 days.
A Note on Storing Things in Basements and Attics:
Often people store things in their basement or attic because these are out of the way places we use for storage – but they are often the worst possible place to put items you want to keep safe. A combination of warmish temps and high moisture is probably one of the biggest dangers to your photos, books, journals and documents.
Since we tend not to heat/cool those spaces the temperatures can fluctuate wildly and they also tend to be places in our homes where moisture creeps in, often unnoticed. They also tend to be places where critters can make their way in more easily. (Of course, if your basements and attics are finished spaces that are temperature controlled this is much much less of a worry) If you take one piece of advice away or make one change – getting important old photos, documents and books out of your basement and attic is probably the best thing you can do!
Scan Everything You Can, Make Copies and Keep Them Somewhere Safe
You never know what can happen. There could be a fire, a flood, something could be lost. The best thing you can do to keep these things is to scan them. Then make copies and keep them in several places. If you have access to online storage – all the better. For journalers, these copies also make it possible to print a copy when you want to use one in a project without using or damaging the original.
Most any scanner you have will do the job, but if you’d like a tutorial on scanning old documents like this. Just let me know.
What’s Next for Preservation & Junk Journaling?
Next up in this series I’ll be putting together a list of questions and answers to your most asked questions about preserving documents, books, photos and more for your junk journals (and in general). We’ll answer questions like “Does tea dying harm your journal?” and “Does coffee dying cause your journal to mold?”
If you want to get notifications from me when these posts go live, sign up for our newsletter. And as a bonus you get access to free printables in our Resource Library!
Have more questions? Let me know in the comments or feel free to contact me.
Some other guides that might interest you:
How to Make a Junk Journal – A Beginner’s Guide
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Hi. Thanks for calming me down. I am fascinated with the whole concept of junk journaling and art journaling, but I’m like a deer in the headlights, I’m frozen and don’t know where to begin. I have loads of fabric, I have a box full of French magazines going back to the mid-40s — fabulous content, fabulous images — I have beads, sari ribbon, coins, etc. Oh I should mention I draw (not particularly well) and doodle and I am a retired copper and bead jewelry maker. So I’m not short of materials and I would really prefer to use what I have rather than buy kits, but perhaps I will need to augment my collection from time to time. My big question is should I be scanning the magazine images etc., and saving the originals? Is there an issue with copyright if I use the images? Some of the magazine pages are fragile so would definitely need to be glued to something else. Sorry for my long comment, as your blog suggests I just want to get started. Thanks and Happy New Year.