Preservation Week: Photo-Albums and Scrapbooks

j.m. iacchei

Today’s blog reports on the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) workshop Your Photographic Scrapbook: Identification and Preservation and is the 4th in our Preservation Week series highlighting Cornell University Library Conservation Lab’s continuing educational efforts to better preserve and protect our collections.

Our family albums and scrapbooks are treasured heirlooms. Each page offers a new story or anecdote about the people and places held within the album’s pages. They bring forth the memories, conversations, and storytelling that help us define who we are and where we come from–our family roots.

table with spread of ablums

As part of the CCAHA’s Collections Care Training initiative, Barbara Lemmen, Senior Photograph Conservator, offered a workshop entitled, Your Photographic Scrapbook: Identification and Preservation hosted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The workshop took on three main areas of focus. First, a lecture presentation providing background on the history of scrapbooks and albums, an overview of the styles of bound structures that developed to hold the contents contained within, the structural characteristics and components that deteriorate with age and use, and the ways in which to preserve and care for these items. Second, a visual sampling of a variety of photo albums and scrapbooks within the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collections. And lastly, a hands-on component evaluating condition and discussing possible preservation options for specific items.

A lot of material was covered in this one-day workshop. As a Senior Conservation Technician working within an academic institution, I found these last two components of the workshop to be the most informative. Chronologically, we may be able to place albums and scrapbooks into categories but as individual items they all present unique challenges and needs. The historical significance of the structure, the original format and placement of the images, intended use, budget, and available time are all considerations in determining appropriate treatment and storage options.

Scrapbook or Photo album?

scrapbook and photoalbumScrapbooks are not a new or recent trend. Their roots date back to the 1700’s. In effect, the scrapbook is about 100 years older than the photo album. They typically contain clippings and articles, and after the advent of photography in the mid-1800’s – photographs. The distinction between the two is that scrapbooks can be continually added to, while albums are usually themed with a specific direction – for example a wedding album.

The earliest structures used for scrapbooks and albums were blank books sold by stationers intended for writing. The addition of dimensional material adhered to the pages places stress on the binding and inhibits the covers from fully closing-causing distortion that allows light and dust to enter the pages. With the advent of photography in the mid 1800’s, albums were developed specifically to accommodate the added dimension of photographs. The structure of each album or scrapbook and the materials used in its construction inform the present condition. Below are three examples of albums more commonly found among family collections.

Carte-de-visite and Cabinet card albums (ca. 1850-1900)Album cover and open pagesThe album structure and page construction of carte-de visite and cabinet card albums were made to allow for the thickness of mounted photographs. The photographs could be slipped into the window through slots located in the pages.  Each window could accommodate two photographs – one viewed from each side of the page. carte-de-visited album and cabinet card albumThe album shown above accommodated both CDV’s (left) as well as cabinet cards (right).

If carefully placed, the paper windows held the photographs in position. However, the slots could be easily torn when the photograph was placed (as seen in the right image above). A torn window left the photographs less securely held and prone to shifting out of position.

Loose Leaf Bindings (ca. 1920-1970)

side-laced, chicagopost and three-ring albumsLoose-leaf bindings were less expensive to make and pages (leaves) could be easily added or removed. There are various types of loose-leaf bindings including: side-laced (left) Chicago or screw post (center), and 3-ring (right).

Albums of this era were often made from less expensive wood pulp paper. In addition to the albums pictured above, black paper albums were also very common. Black paper was chosen intentionally by the manufacturer. Not only did it provide a strong contrasting background to the black and white photographs held within but it also hid the discoloration caused by the deterioration of lignin (a naturally occurring substance in wood that darkens and breaks down into acidic byproducts as it ages) common to wood pulp papers.

Photographs could be held in position by a few mechanisms: overall or corner mounting using an adhesive, photo corners (left) or slits cut into the support page (right).

Photographs mounted using adhesive presented two issues: 1) page distortion and undulations from additional moisture added by the adhesive and 2) adhesive failure leaving loose photographs, adhesive residue and staining, and possibly abrasion to the paper support. Mounting the photographs with photo-corners or through slits alleviated the distortion caused by adhesive and allowed the photographs to flex with the movement of the page. However, paper slits tear and placement of the photograph’s corners into photo-corners and through slits places stress on the corners which can become bent when inserted. Additionally, the photograph may become discolored in the area placed under the slot or corner.

 Magnetic albums (ca. 1960-2000)

Magnetic albums

Magnetic photo albums are often spiral bound. Each page was coated overall with a pressure sensitive adhesive and wrapped in a plastic overlay. At purchase, the plastic overlay is clear, smooth, free of wrinkles, and held photographs firmly in place. Over time, the plastic material used as overlays can wrinkle, distort, and become creased or folded (right image).  If they remain firmly in place over the photographs, any patterns of distortion (wrinkles) can be transferred to the photograph’s surface. They can also give off acid and plasticizers causing deterioration to the photographs.

The adhesive on the pages deteriorates as well, oxidizing when exposed to air. The oxidation will cause the adhesive bond to react in one of two ways – it will either strengthen, making it difficult to safely move the photos, or it will fail, resulting in loose photographs (center image above).

To better preserve your personal albums and scrapbooks they can be placed in an enclosure in an environment where temperature and humidity don’t fluctuate. The main level of your home may offer a more stable environment than the basement or the attic. Archival boxes can be purchased from Gaylord Archival Products. When they are brought out to be looked at, handle them with care. A soft pillow(s) can offer support to albums with fragile bindings. The cushioning of the pillow supports the opening, allowing the pages to be viewed without compromising the binding. For specific concerns to your personal albums (broken sewing, loose pages, photographs stuck firmly to magnetic pages), contact a conservator. They may be able to offer feasible suggestions to help preserve and extend the life of your albums and scrapbooks into the future.

For more information about preserving scrapbooks, see ALA’s Preservation Week Preserving Historic Scrapbooks and Making New Ones That Last (Melissa Tedone, 2014). The recording as well as handouts, slides, questions and answers are available as a PDF.

Below are some additional resources discussing preservation and history of photograph albums and scrapbooks.

Zachary, Shannon, ed. (2000) Conservation of Scrapbooks and Albums: Postprints of the Book and Paper Group/Photographic Materials Group Joint Session at the 27th Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, June 11, 1999, St. Louis Missouri. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Conservation.

Haley, Alan and Adrienne Lundgren (2011) Preserving Photographic Albums. Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography. Verna Posever Curtis, ed. New York: Library of Congress and Aperture Foundation, 277-279.

Long, Jane S. and Richard W. (2000) Scrapbooks and Albums. Caring for your Family Treasures. New York: Abrams, 38-45.


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