How to Preserve a Family Album Smithsonian-Style

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Recently, a crowd of more than 300 people attended the first ever Smithsonian Archives Fair to learn how the Smithsonian helps to maintain millions of artifacts in a condition that withstands the effects of time. Representatives from nearly every museum set up information booths, gave lectures, and taught visitors how to preserve objects of their own through the Ask the Smithsonian program.

"Not only does showcase all the Smithsonian archives have, but it also educates the public on how to preserve their own treasures," said Freer/Sackler archivist Rachael Christine Woody, who helped organize the event.

I asked the Smithsonian how to preserve a recent gift from my grandmother—her mother's (my great grandmother's) scrapbook, from around the 1930s. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe of Oklahoma, my great grandmother traveled the country as a performer, singing songs and telling stories she had learned from her people. She filled her scrapbook with newspaper clippings, photographs, and handwritten notes. The book proved invaluable; she passed away when my grandmother was only nine years old, and this scrapbook was what my grandmother got to remember her by.

Keeping the scrapbook in good condition is important, to say the least; someday, I want my children to be able to leaf through the book's now brittle pages to learn about their heritage. I consulted with Smithsonian paper conservator Nora Lockshin and photo archivist Marguerite Roby about how to make sure my scrapbook survives for generations to come.

What do I need to know before I start the preservation process?

Nora: We don’t immediately advocate taking anything apart, ever, because in photographs and albums, context is everything. And really, the person who put it together and how they put it together is important. So if you start disrupting that you lose some of the original content.

What would the first step be?

Nora: If the scrapbook doesn’t have a slipcase, the first step is putting it in an enclosure. Check the pages out; make sure there are no problems already going on like bugs or mold. If that seems stable and fine, get a box, an archival drop-front storage box that sits flat is probably the best thing, versus putting it upright on a shelf because gravity will fight you, and things will drop forward. So the best thing to do is put in a flat, archival, material storage box, so everything is contained. This protects it from the light, and dust and pests.

And then?

Nora: You could think about putting interleaving paper between the album pages. Photographic interleaving material is special paper that is meant to be photographically neutral. You can put that in between the leaves so that the pictures aren’t rubbing on each other and potentially sticking. We usually put it in where there’s enough space in the spine to accommodate and definitely where pictures are facing.

Keep it in a safe environment that’s not too dry. It’s not too damp, either. You don’t keep it in the back of the closet where you can’t see what’s going on and where pests can gather. Basically, out of sight, out of mind really is that, and it rarely preserves things. Most often, it leads to their deterioration. No attics, no basements, not the bathroom or the kitchen, you want to try and find the most stable place in the house, away from windows and doors, not on exterior walls. Basically, you want it in a bookshelf, but in a box. That way, in five years you can look at it, and go, “That wasn’t there before,” like a little mousy chew hole or something.

What about the photos and newspaper clippings that are just sort of loose. That’s something that makes me nervous. I worry every time I open it that they’re going to fall.

Nora: It really helps to document original order. But definitely taking pictures of it is a good idea because things can fade and darken. You would take a shot with an overhead camera. That’s the one time you’d put it in a sunny spot in your house so you don’t have glare. Just shoot it all the way through on the highest resolution you possibly have.

And if there’s an image that you love, love, love, and you want it because you want a cool vintage look in your house or something, you can make a duplicate—what we call the access copy and the display copy.

You could also consider separating them and putting them in a “V-fold” sleeve of archival paper, or an archival envelope with a little sling. If you’re getting a box anyway, you might consider taking the clippings out and putting them in a little folder. And you might write on them, for example, “found between pages 18 and 19.”

What's the one thing I have to keep in mind in the preservation process?

Marguerite: I think preserving that context of every single thing is really the most important part of this. Because if you put all the loose photographs at the end, you don’t know if one is supposed to go with an article, or maybe one does go with an article and the article is in between different pages. You’ll be the biggest help to yourself and future generations by being as meticulous as possible about documenting each page.

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