Preserving Family Collections

Dear Donia,

How do I remove photos from black album pages, clippings from an old diary, and preserve newspapers? 

Family collections

Q. Dear Donia,

Question 1: I have inherited a photo album, about 70 years old, with photos pasted onto black paper—the sort of black paper album that was once frequently used for photos. Before I inherited the album, about 2/3 of the photos were removed. Furthermore the album was not stored properly, so some pages are ripped and the cover is missing. The album is quite tatty. I'd like to properly preserve the photos. Can they be safely removed from the paper? If so, how should I go about it? If not, what is the best way to preserve them in place in the album?
 
Question 2: I have also inherited a few of my great-grandmother's diaries. They were written in pencil. She was the local "personals" columnist for the newspaper and would cut out the columns. She pasted the columns in books, alas using some of her diaries. So her words are covered up by the columns. The columns are readily available, many online, others in local libraries, so I don't mind if they are destroyed. But I would like to read the diaries. Is there any way to remove the columns to see what my ancestor wrote? Or is this a hopeless endeavor?
 
Question 3: Another inherited item is old newspapers about my father. Some of these are full pages. They are very fragile. I'd like to know how best to preserve them for future generations of our family. Thank you for your help. Thank you, Ellen
 

A. Dear Ellen,

What great questions—I will do my best to answer them for you.
 
Question 1:  How do you remove photos from black album pages?
 
The difficulty in answering this question is that I do not know how they are attached. If the photos are on with the photo corners then you are lucky and can just take the photos out. If the photos are glued in there are a couple of things you can do. If the photos are only on one side, you can carefully just cut around the photo and leave it at that. If the photos are on both sides there are a couple of options. The first option is to just leave them be—this is the safest choice. If the photos are only glued at the corners, it may be possible to get them off of the black paper by VERY CAREFULLY working them off with a palette knife or a small frosting knife (do NOT use anything sharp or with serration). Most of the time the black paper separates easily. If the photos will not come off easily, leave them be or you can do a lot of damage. If the photos are left on the black paper, you can put each page into an acid-free, lignin-free, buffered folder and put those folders in a box. This way you can label the folder with the contents and be able to look at the photos since you can turn the pages over using the folder and not damage the black paper any more than it is.
 
Question 2: How do you remove clippings from a diary?
 
In some ways this is also a difficult question to answer since I do not know what adhesive your great grandmother used to adhere the clippings. Regardless, this is the type of project that should be taken to a conservator because there are so many things that could go wrong and you don't want to lose the information from your great grandmother. The best way to find a reputable conservator in your area is to consult the American Institute for Conservation's "Find a Conservator" page. Simply put in your zip code and select a specialty (in this instance you would pick "Book and Paper"). If you have never worked with a conservator before, be sure to read the information that AIC supplies as it will make for a better experience all around. I hope you are able to find someone!
 
Question 3:  How do you preserve newspapers?
 
When it comes to newspapers, the best way to preserve them is to digitize them. Newsprint is a very unstable and will deteriorate even with our best efforts to stop it. There are a couple of ways you can digitize the content of your old newspapers. One is with a simple home scanner. If your newspaper is full size, you will have to scan it in sections. When scanning, be sure to brush the glass plated off each time as the newspaper has a tendency to crumble and flakes will mar the scan.
 
The other way is with a digital camera. If you have a tripod, set up your camera facing down. Make sure the camera is level or you will not get a good, clear scan. You can then take images of the newspaper in sections if it doesn't fit completely into the viewfinder. If you take images in sections, give yourself overlap because many cameras loose focus at the outer edges of the picture. This would be a safer way to digitize the newspaper since you won't have to flip the fragile paper over as often.
 
If you do not have a scanner or camera at home, check with your local library (main branch would be best) to see if they have scanners available for use in their computer area. They would also have someone who could help you stitch the images together if you need more than one scan. If available, this would be your most cost-effective option that would give you the best results.
 
If you absolutely want to save the original newspapers, you can get the supplies to store them just like you would your photographs.  Look for items especially for newspapers like this kit from our sponsor Hollinger Metal Edge.
 
I hopes this helps. If you have any more questions, please don't hesitate to ask "Dear Donia" again.