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Salvaging a Scrapbook

Martha Stewart Living, April 2010

Q: I have an old album with photos and newspaper clippings glued to the pages. Is it possible to remove, preserve, and store these items without destroying them?

A: It's probably best to leave the photos and clippings where they are. Only a conservator can tell what type of adhesive was used to attach the items and what kind of solvent will safely remove it. If you try to detach the pieces yourself, you'll likely cause them to tear. But even if freeing the pictures were a risk-free prospect, conservators would probably still advise against it. "An album is more than the sum of its parts," says Adrienne Lundgren, senior photograph conservator at the Library of Congress. "When you disassemble it, you lose the historical context, the sequence and format that the creator designed."

Still, there are important steps you can take to ensure the longevity of your heirlooms. Place the album in an archival box to buffer the photos from temperature and humidity fluctuations, dust, and insects, and store it in a cool, dry place. Avoid the basement and the attic, where conditions tend to be moist, promoting sticking and mold growth, or extremely dry, causing shrinking, curling, or cracking.

Choose a box that has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT), which assesses whether storage material will cause fading or staining of photographs. (This information is often included in catalogs and websites for art and photography supplies. One source is University Products, universityproducts.com.)

If the pages of the album have come loose, place them, in order, in individual sleeves made of pure, uncoated polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene -- all materials that pass the PAT. Number the sleeves to retain the initial sequence using a pen with archival-quality ink, such as a Pigma pen (also available at University Products). Stack the sleeves inside the original binding, and place them inside a box. You can protect pages further in an intact album with sleeves or interleaving sheets. Just be careful not to overstuff the album, since this can break the binding.

If you think the album's materials are harming its contents, find a qualified conservator at conservation-us.org.