Wednesday, 29 August 2007


By Johann J van Rensburg


We often forget that by collecting old letters, photographs and documents, we also accept the responsibility for their safekeeping. If you don’t believe that, just think about your dismay when you find that someone else does not look after or appreciate that which they had in their possession.

We all pass on and leave what we have collected to those who are left behind and in most cases the likelihood of our family keeping something that they might not have any interest in, is directly related to how well we have preserved and ordered the documentation and albums that they take possession of.

Above: A photograph of Sarel P etrus Herbst (29 July 1863 - 4 June 1955) and his family taken in September 1911. Fortunately it was saved, but unfortunately not cared for and spoilt with a ballpoint pen. (Click on the photo to enlarge and view the real damage.)

Plastic see-through enclosures allow for easy viewing of an image, reducing damage from handling and protecting it from moisture and sulphides in the air. Unfortunately, under certain conditions plastic enclosures can trap moisture and cause sticking. Use enclosures made from polyester, polypropylene and polyethylene. These plastics are stable and have a neutral pH.

Avoid enclosures made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It is not stable and causes discolouration over time.

Newspapers are among the most problematic materials to preserve. This is because their paper is acidic and of very poor quality. Newsprint also contains lignin, which causes paper to yellow and darken. If exposed to light, newsprint quickly becomes brittle.

Never store newspapers together with other documents and or photographs or use it for wrapping. Your options for preserving newsprint are:
photocopying onto acid-free paper;storage in archival boxes in a cool and dark environment;de-acidification, ormicrofilming;digitising.The popular black pages often used in older photo albums and scrapbooks, while providing an aesthetically pleasing background, contain harmful acids that damage photographs and documents they contain. Today technology has allowed for the production of black paper that is not harmful.

Mount photos in albums using photo corners that won’t harm the photo. Never stick a photo to a page. Always make a note of the people and the place the photo was taken and when it was taken. Never write this information with a ballpoint pen on the back of the photo as this damages the surface.

Care for and catalogue your negatives. Museums have registration files and libraries have cataloques, but even small collections and family heirlooms should be documented to keep track of their location, condition and value.

Always wear gloves when handling negatives, photos, old documents, coins and medals.

Air purity is a big problem in urban areas, since harmful chemicals and particle matter damage photographs.

Suggestion: metal cabinets are better than wood, because wood produces gases. Keep photos away from plywood, paint, paint fumes and/or janitorial supplies.

Damaging Old Photographs

The Western Cape Branch, in Newsletter 3/2003, reported as follows on the above. The writer was not mentioned.

Old photographs really give life to any work of genealogy, but I shudder every time I hear of someone photocopying old photos. There is nothing else, save putting them in direct sunlight that will destroy them faster. The brilliant light of the photocopy machine is speeding up their deterioration. Light makes prints fade, especially the really old, really valuable ones.

It's a much better idea to SCAN old photos because the light levels in a scanner are much lower than those of a photocopier. Even better, copy them with either a digital or film camera -- though copying old photos does take more sophisticated equipment than a point-and click and is a photographic skill in its own right. Then you can send everyone copies of a clean and clear image instead of a nearly indecipherable photocopy.

Most of the photocopies I've seen are so bad I can't figure out who the people are in them. If the copies of the originals are printed off on a computer printer, you can run as many as you need and have plenty of room to write in the margins.

The originals should be kept in the dark -- preferably in climate- controlled conditions, but few people have that. The least that should be done is to keep them in a cool dry place.
  • Pictures in this article were added by the blogadministrator.

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