Preservation

How should I attach my photos to the album pages?

Plastic pocket style pages do not require adhesive.

Self-stick (pressure sensitive) tapes, especially those with rubber based adhesives (e.g., masking and cellophane tapes), household white or yellow glues, and rubber cement should not be used on valuable or heirloom photographs. Pressure sensitive tapes and many glues either fail with time or become difficult to remove, and usually cause staining and fading. Although some acrylic tape formulations, including some double sided acrylic tapes, have tested well with the Photographic Activity Test (PAT), they still have undesirable long term properties. (The PAT was developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and is a test that determines whether or not a storage material will cause fading or staining in photographs. The PAT standard code is ANSI IT9.16 Photographic Activity Test. Many eventually ooze around their edges in time. This can cause adjacent items to stick together if the adhesive oozes beyond the edge of the photograph (although this problem is tempered somewhat if the album page has a protective plastic cover sheet). Also, most pressure sensitive adhesives cause papers to become transparent as their chemical components migrate out of the adhesive layer and are absorbed into the materials with which they are in contact.

The safest and simplest way to attach photos to paper pages is by using plastic or paper photo corners which pass the PAT. Photo corners are available in two general designs: 1) as strips of plastic or paper that must be folded into a triangular pocket at the time of use or 2) corners that come prefolded or sealed into the triangular pocket. The corners of the photograph are slipped into the triangular pockets which are then secured to the album page. Photo corners are especially appropriate for snapshot photographs because many preservation quality adhesives do not stick well to the backs of modern photographs. Unlike glues and adhesives which must be applied directly to the back of the photo, photo corners allow easy removal of the photos as the need arises and rarely damage photos (and if they do, the damage will be confined to the margins of the photo).

Paper photo corners typically have small amounts of adhesive on the backside which is moistened much like a postage stamp before it is adhered to the album page. Not only is this adhesive usually safe, but it can be removed in the future by remoistening. These corners are available in white and black, and some even have decorative edges. Plastic photo corners have a pressure sensitive (self stick) adhesive on the back. They are clear and do not obscure any part of the image along the margins. Most plastic corners are made from polyester or in some cases polyethylene or polypropylene. The small paper or plastic corners available for snapshot size photographs are too small for photographs larger than 8 x 10 inches or for photos thicker than the average snapshot, such as many 19th Century photographs which are mounted on thin cards or boards. Larger sized corners should be used for these photographs. Snapshots can be secured either at all four corners or with two photo corners placed at opposite diagonal corners of the photo. Large photographs and paper items, thick mounted photographs, or heavy items should be secured at all four corners.

Only adhesives which pass the PAT should be used directly on photographs. Unfortunately, preservation quality wet adhesives can swell and distort photographs if not dried carefully under light pressure and they may not stick well to modern snapshot photographs. Any adhesive used directly on the back of a photograph should be applied in small dots, about the size of a cotton swab tip, at the corners. Avoid smearing adhesive along the edges or the entire back of the photo as this will make it likely that you will transfer adhesive to the front in the process, prolong drying time, increase the chance of swelling and distortions, and complicate removal, if required.

Preservation quality adhesives include purified starch pastes, and adhesives made from chemically modified cellulose, such as methyl cellulose (Dow A4M MC). Modified celluloses are inert and are used as thickeners in many food products, as are purified wheat starches. These adhesives have been used for years by conservators and have proven stability. These adhesives are available through mail order catalogs from preservation suppliers. In a pinch, arrow root starch (available in grocery stores) can be used as it is another highly purified plant starch (it was used in various 19th century photographic processes).

Starches and methylcellulose adhesives can be made with pure water. Starch adhesives tend to adhere better than cellulose adhesives, but spoil within a few days, even when kept refrigerated in a closed jar. Cellulose adhesives do not require cooking, do not require dilution if prepared to the needed thickness (given below), and rarely spoil even when kept for months at room temperature in a closed jar. Starches should be prepared with 1 part starch to 4 parts water. This slurry can be cooked in a microwave set on high, stirring every 30 seconds for a total of 2 to 5 minutes until it forms a translucent gel. Then it is cooled, strained and diluted with water to a thin creamy consistency for use. Methyl cellulose (MC) should be prepared with 1 part MC to 8 parts cold water, mixed and refrigerated overnight till it gels.

 

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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