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Preserving the Perishable: A Fire History Picture is Worth More Than a Thousand Words

2015.018.002

In this edition of Preserving the Perishable, I thought I would explain the do's and don'ts of photograph preservation briefly. As a historian and a genealogist, I frequently see the results of improper photograph archiving and how it destroys the precious history that we treasure.

I remember, at the passing of my grandparents, shoe boxes and albums of old photos would surface, then it became a guessing game as to who was in the picture and what they were doing. If the picture was glued into a scrapbook, the problem became even worse as the adhesive over the years destroyed the image. From a fire department perspective, how many times have you looked at a photo in the station and asked for details to only be met with a blank stare? No one knows the details other than it's always been hanging in the station, the faces are forgotten. These are just a few of the problems with poorly archived photographs.

First, we will discuss what NOT to do! If we avoid some of these things, photos themselves have a very long shelf life on their own. First, be very careful when using any type of adhesive around photos. This will, over time, denigrate the picture itself. This includes even storing photos in unsealed envelopes. Do not use paper clips or binder clips to hold pictures together. These will eventually leave permanent indentations and potential rust stains. Be careful of mounting photos in anything that is not archival quality. Certain papers and plastics emit gases and break down, which can be detrimental to your photos. Never write on the backs of the pictures. This not only leaves impressions, but the ink can transfer onto other pictures they come in contact with. Heat and humidity are not a photographer's friend. Both can break down photos and potentially lead to mold growth. Direct sunlight is very hard on photos and, over time, will cause the images to fade out. Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention that natural disasters destroy many pictures because of low storage techniques. I have seen all these things occur within the facilities of the fire service.

So, there you have a lot of don'ts. The don'ts happens because they are the methods of least resistance and effort. If we expect to document the fire service's history, then we must do everything we can to protect those items that tell our story. So how do we preserve our photos to tell that story?

First and foremost, I highly recommend that you begin a process of digitizing your photographs. This is a great tool to share and tell your story on social media, but it also provides you a backup to the actual photo if it should become damaged or missing. This can easily be accomplished with a computer and scanner or even a cell phone with scanning applications. You can elect to store them locally, or even in the cloud. Both have pros and cons, but that's for another day. This also eliminates the need to handle the originals and protects them from oils from your skin.

Secondly, make sure you store the original photos in the correct type of containers and location. Look for containers in your hobby stores or online that are photo safe, acid and PVC free. Look for archival quality file folders or picture envelops as well. Store your photos in a cool environment below 75 degrees. That rules out the attic storage room. Also, humidity should be kept between 20-60%. This may rule out the damp basement as well. Store your photos in dark areas. UV light and florescent light are not friends to photographs. Doing a simple risk analysis of your fire department facility will identify the best possible location.

Lastly, it is essential to identify the photo. A photo without the story is just a forgotten image. That photo needs to have the words to go along with it. I would highly recommend a proper photo storage system. A means to identify the picture and the information about it. Since it's not good to write on photos, potentially an archival album allows you to insert captions under the photo. If you must, use a photo quality marker and place a small identification number on the back of the print that corresponds to a logbook with the rest of the story is told. It's never too late to start working on identifying old photos and this can be an incredible engagement tool for the public via social media.

I have heard horror stories of work details at the station where boxes of old photos are pitched in the dumpster because no one knew anything about them. Not everyone is tuned into the history of the fire service. All of us must preserve the perishables. Until next time.

Cover Photo: Puyallup Fire Department, Washington (1934). Accession Number: [2015.018.002]

Dick DeVore, Chief Archivist
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  • The National Fire Heritage Center
  • Address: 17701 Creamery Road  Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
  • Phone: (210) 380-8364
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.