The Archive Lady: Preserving Photo Negatives

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shows you the best ways to preserve old family photo negatives with these amazing tips and tricks!

Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, show you the best ways to preserve old family photo negatives with these amazing tips and tricks!

Brenda from Texas asks: “I have a few boxes of old negatives that belonged to my parents. I want to keep the negatives even if I have the photos that go with them. What is the best way to preserve these old negatives?”

Brenda asks a great question and one that I get all the time in the archives. Many genealogists find themselves with old negatives in their photograph collections and they just don’t know what to do with them. First and foremost, negatives should never be put with photos where they are touching each other. Over time, old negatives could start to develop a vinegar odor or start to warp. This is a sign that the film is deteriorating.

When working with negatives, always wear gloves. Just like photographs, film negatives are susceptible to the dirt and oils on our hands and if they get on the film negatives, they can be damaged. Always wear gloves when working with or handling photographs and negatives.

When working with negatives, always wear gloves. Just like photographs, film negatives are susceptible to the dirt and oils on our hands and if they get on the film negatives, they can be damaged. Always wear gloves when working with or handling photographs and negatives.
Always use gloves when handling photos and negatives

First and foremost, I would encourage Mary to get her negatives digitized. This can be done by purchasing a flatbed scanner that can scan negatives or you can seek out a company that handles digitizing negatives. This way, if something were to happen to the original negatives, the digitized copies will survive.

Store negatives in archival sleeves. These sleeves come in all different sizes and shapes to accommodate any size negative. (A list of archival supply stores is listed below where these archival sleeves can be purchased). These clear archival sleeves safeguard negatives from dust and scratches when they are being stored.

Store negatives in archival sleeves. These sleeves come in all different sizes and shapes to accommodate any size negative. (A list of archival supply stores is listed below where these archival sleeves can be purchased). These clear archival sleeves safeguard negatives from dust and scratches when they are being stored.
Archival sleeve for negatives

Once the negatives are on the archival sleeves, they need to be housed in a binder or box. It is up to you whether you use a binder or box. If a 3-ring binder is used, it is recommended that one that totally encloses the sleeves be used. Here is an example:

Once the negatives are on the archival sleeves, they need to be housed in a binder or box. It is up to you whether you use a binder or box. If a 3-ring binder is used, it is recommended that one that totally encloses the sleeves be used. Here is an example:
3-ring binder for negatives in archival sleeves

This binder will fully protect the negatives from any unwanted elements from entering during storage. These binders can be purchased at any archive supply.

Another storage option is to use boxes to store negatives. You could use a flip top box called a Hollinger box or you could use a box that is specifically for negatives. Using Hollinger boxes will require purchasing archival safe file folders to hold the archival sleeves so they can fit nicely in the boxes. This preservation method will give the negatives triple protection from the elements.

Another storage option is to use boxes to store negatives. You could use a flip top box called a Hollinger box or you could use a box that is specifically for negatives. Using Hollinger boxes will require purchasing archival safe file folders to hold the archival sleeves so they can fit nicely in the boxes. This preservation method will give the negatives triple protection from the elements.
Hollinger box example

The most important aspect of archiving and storing negatives is to store them in a very cool place. Heat and humidity will quickly damage negatives and break down the chemicals in the material that makes up the negatives. Keeping all photos and negatives out of sunlight is also important. Not only will the sunlight damage the negatives by warping them but the sun will also wash out the image on the negative to where it cannot be seen any longer. Do not store any genealogical records, including photos and negatives, in attics, basements or storage areas where the temperature and humidity fluctuate.

If the negatives were processed and you have those photographs, it would be a good idea to keep the photos and negatives together. Be sure to not let them touch each other but storing them in the same box or binder would be a great idea.

Preserving negatives is just as easy as preserving our old family photos. Keeping the negatives, even if you have the actual photographs, is a smart step because if something were to happen to the photographs you could get use the negatives to get more photographs. Using the right archival materials and storing them in a cool, dry, and dark place will insure they will last for generations to come.

Online Archival Supply Stores


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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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