As a Certified Archives Manager, I get a lot of questions about the best way to preserve old family items. Recently, Steven from Florida posted a question on my blog about what to do with an old family photo album, one of those black paper photo albums that probably we all have in our genealogy records collections. Steven wondered if he could repair the old album or if he should remove the photos and start new.   

Black Page Photo Album Houston County TN. Archives with photos - Preserving Old Black Paper Photo AlbumsThese albums were extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Photographs were either pasted onto the pages or attached with photo corners that were pasted into the album. Today, most of these old albums have loose pages and loose photos.

Keep the Albums Intact

Black Page Photo Album Houston County TN. Archives - Preserving Old Black Paper Photo Albums

Old album in the Houston County (Tennessee) Archives

We have several of these types of black paper photo albums in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives where I work. It is very important that these albums be handled with care and preserved properly, but the good news is any home archivist can preserve their own black paper photo albums. First and foremost, the black paper in these albums is not archival. The pages are not acid free and are full of chemicals. The paste that was used to glue the photographs is also not archival and can be damaging to photographs over time.

Because of this, many people think they should remove the photographs from these albums, but I caution everyone about doing that. If the paste has worn away or deteriorated enough that the photos come off the pages easily, then it’s okay to remove the photos. But do not pry the photographs from the pages. That could result in significant damage. Dismantling a photograph album like this should be a last resort. Keeping an original photograph album intact, as much as possible, is always the first choice.

Digitize the Albums and Photos

Also, I suggest that you digitize the pages in the photo album. Take photos of the pages or use a flat bed scanner that allows you to lay the pages flat. Do not use any device that requires you to feed pages into it. This could cause irreparable damage if the pages get stuck. Digitizing and documenting every photograph from the album is a great archiving tool. If something were to happen to the album, you will still have the digital images. (If you intend to use the photos in your family history book, be sure to digitize them at the highest resolution possible.) Also, scan the photos or pages in the order they are in the album. Sometimes the photographs were placed in the album chronologically or in some sort of specific grouping. You may not see the pattern at first, but it might become clear later.

Remember, when you handle the page and photos, please wear white cotton or latex gloves to keep oils and dirt from your hands from causing damage.

Protect and Store the Albums

Black Page Photo Album Houston County TN. Archives with archival tissue paper - Preserving Old Black Paper Photo Albums

Archival tissue paper in place to protect the pages

Put one sheet of archival tissue paper between each page of the album. This will create a barrier between the photographs and the adjacent black paper pages and will ensure that if photographs come off any remaining glue will not touch the other photographs on the adjacent page.

If there are loose photographs that have fallen out of the album, put them in archival sleeves and keep them with the album. If you can tell where they go in the album then insert the sleeves in order. If not, then place the sleeves at the beginning or the end of the album. 

Place the entire album in an archival box lined with archival tissue paper. (Another option for loose photos is to place them on top of the album in the archival box, separated with pieces of tissue paper.) Make certain that the  box you buy fits the album as perfectly as possible. If the album is moving around in the box, crumple up tissue paper and put around the album so it doesn’t move. Finally, store the box in a cool, dark, and dry place. Never store documents, photographs, or artifacts in an attic, basement, or someplace where it is humid or there is direct sunlight. 

If you are fortunate enough to have these wonderful old black paper photo albums with your ancestors’ photographs in them, you have a treasure! So, let’s preserve and archive that album so that future generations can enjoy those photographs!

Editor’s note: A version of this post ran in Melissa’s “The Archive Lady” blog

Photos courtesy the Houston County, Tennessee Archives



Melissa Barker

Melissa Barker

Guest contributor Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager currently working as the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist. She lectures and writes about records preservation, genealogy research, and researching in archives, and she conducts webinar presentations for genealogical and historical societies. She is the Reviews Editor for the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) magazine FORUM, and she writes a bi-weekly advice column called The Archive Lady for She has been researching her own family history for the past 26 years.
Melissa Barker

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