Of Recalcitrant Staples, Paper Clips and Mould Mould Mould!

Instructions for mounting photos in a photo album from the early 1980s

The 'modern, easy and quick' self adhesive photo albums from the 1970s and 1980s are a bad place to store your memorabilia.

While the goals of a historian and those working on family history at times are quite different there is a considerable overlap.  I have found family historians very helpful while I have been researching the history of teaching reading.  Over the last few days I was reminded again about how complementary the two pursuits are.

I’m sorting through the archives of a local community organisation.  The work has been similar to the kind of work done by anyone who is securing the material that documents their family history.  An important task became evident while I was sorting through photos, letters and other memorabilia dating from the 1970s to just a couple of years ago.  I had to arrest the deterioration of the items in the collections and rehouse some of the material.  I am not an archivist but on the way I have picked up some basic do’s and don’ts of storing material for posterity.  It was the world of genealogy which first alerted me to the need to take great care about storage conditions of historical archives.

I have spent some time removing corroded paper clips, perished rubber bands, rusty staples and rusty folder bindings.  A folder with rusty paper fasteners, corroded paper clips and perished rubber bandsTo the left is a photo of a sample of the offending objects I have removed from the collection.  Metal rusts when exposed to humidity over time.  The rust is then transferred onto any document that touches the rusty item causing permanent damage to it.  If you intend to store documents for any period of time, you should remove all metal items prior to putting the material in storage.  If you need to keep pieces of paper together, use a plastic paper clip rather than a staple.  An alternative form of binding is cotton thread.  In a useful post, Erika Mordek  explains how to bind zines with needle and thread.

It was the ‘self-adhesive’ or magnetic photo album from the early 1980s which was the main problem.  These are renowned for the damage that they cause photos.  The album I was dealing with described itself as “self-adhesive”.  The problem is that over time the items inside became very difficult to remove.  I had to use a blade from a stanley knife to remove the items from this album.  To the right is a photo of one page after I removed the item on it.  It took me over two hours to remove this item and as you can see it was so tightly adhered to the page that some of the page came away with the item.  I was rewarded for my efforts though as some of the items had writing on the back of them which can now be read for the first time.

It was difficult to get the blade between the page of the photo album and the item, but mould had no difficulty insinuating its way between the two.  Mould on photo album pageNearly every page had mould.  This then seeped through the item.  Mould on the back of a piece of paperIf this is allowed to continue unchecked the item can be rendered unreadable as well as being a health hazard.

Mould is always going to pose a potential problem for collections in Sydney due to the warm humid conditions we experience during summer.  Queensland is particularly prone to this problem which is exacerbated by floods and cyclones.  The State Library of Queensland has provided a useful information sheet about dealing with mould in your collections that is well worth reading.

The album contained many newspaper articles which also harboured mould.  The paper used to print newspapers on is of a particularly poor quality and liable to deterioration.  Rather than attempting to restore the articles I plan to photocopy them and throw the originals out.  If we want to refer to the originals we can go to the state library and see them there.  It is better that I keep clean photocopies rather than deteriorating originals that might damage items stored next to them.  The State Library of Victoria has a good overview of the issues of storing newspapers if you are interested in finding out more.

The original magnetic album will have to be thrown out.  However, I want to keep the collection together and display it in the same order as that chosen by the person who originally compiled it. While I took the items out of the original album I wrote on each page of the old album the details of the item(s) that had been placed on that page.  This will enable me to maintain the order when I transfer the items to a new photo album.

There is a hobby called scrapbooking which is about creating photo albums that are beautifully presented with good captions, associated memorabilia and designed for longevity.  I will purchase one of the albums that are designed for scrapbooking use as the paper and plastic that are used to make these albums are designed to minimise the deterioration of the collection.

An issue that many people face when reviewing old collections of photos is that the person who originally took the photo did not record what the photo was about or the names of the people in the photo.  This is a problem that I face.  Fortunately the photos in my album were taken within living memory so I plan to find someone who would conceivably have a connection with these photos and ask them to tell me the names of the people photographed and hopefully something about the event.  I will then add captions to the album.  This exercise is well worth doing as it hopefully will spark the memories of the person(s) I interview thus enabling me to capture some more of the story.

I hope that the tale of this mouldy photo album will encourage you to review your collections of photos and assess the state they are in.  The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has a quick checklist which can guide you in maintaining your personal memorabilia.  Even if you don’t have a problem with mould, please, please remove photos from those 1970s and 1980s magnetic or self-adhesive albums, put them in a new photo album and write captions for every photo.  People in the future will appreciate your effort!

What is your experience with maintaining your history memorabilia?  What steps have you taken to store your collection in cool, dry conditions that will minimise the risk of mould?

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5 thoughts on “Of Recalcitrant Staples, Paper Clips and Mould Mould Mould!

  1. I digitally photograph all the pages of old albums before taking them apart. You won’t get great images unless you put a lot of work into the minimising the reflections but enough to show the layout of the photographs.

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  2. I’ve also dealt with one of those sticky albums, so I sympathise. I use iPhoto (on a Mac) to produce a photo album – you do the work on line, including adding captions if necessary, and finally send off the file to Apple with Visa details. You get back a bound book with archive quality paper. Not cheap, but very effective, and it’s possible to print the file to PDF and print that out for free.

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  3. I would think that there would be a probability of damage from the plasticizers in plastic staples too. As most plastics are made of oil based plastics, the plasticizers tend to migrate out of the plastic and into objects over time. The same is true of cheap plastic wallets and folders. These could do significant damage to documents over time, and might well not be noticed until after the document had started to become transparent.

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    • I agree that not all plastics are good for archival purposes. Some are better than others but in the long run there will probably be deterioration even when the best are used. Nic, do you know of a good website which discusses this?

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