Getting Started

This page discusses defining the physical nature of a collection, makes suggestions about an inventory, and provides links to more detailed information about specific issues.

In order to interest potential institutions in your collection, all parties need to know its content and condition. You could start with the provenance of what you have, how and why it exists, and who collected or compiled it. The collection must be surveyed and counted, making sure to register any identification and dating found on the negatives, prints, or other types of photographs.

If no identification of individual items exists, short descriptions of the objects may be helpful. Establish a numbering system, if none exists, that allows easy retrieval of individual items. You may need or want to find specific examples from the collection to show interested collectors.

Determine if the photographs are originals, copies, or a combination of both. Original photographs of a particular subject such as the American Civil War, or a process such as Autochromes, may be particularly valuable and warrant special care when handling or storing.

Note the condition of individual items so that interested institutions can predict future archival and/or storage problems. How and where has the collection been stored. Are individual items separated from one another in envelopes or sleeves. Are the photographs in albums, mounted, or loose. Is there noticeable deterioration of individual items that need immediate attention. For example, the adhesive used in photography albums, such as rubber cement, is harmful to photographs and staining is often visible. Album pages are frequently not acid free, and should be interleaved with acid free sleeving. (See “Caring For Your Photographs.”)

Cotton gloves should be used to handle photographs when working with the collection. Oversized prints need physical acid free support when storing to keep them from cracking or bending. Original photographs attached to correspondence or other written materials should be replaced with copies, identified, catalogued, and stored with other photographs. Paper clips and poor quality enclosures should be removed.

If possible, categorize the collection according to size and type of negatives, prints or other kinds of photographs such as daguerreotypes, Polaroids, color slides, etc. Determine whether the photographic prints have a paper or resin coated (RC) base. Color prints and transparencies have specific archival concerns. Kodachrome slides, for example, have relatively stable dyes and good longevity. But the majority of color film slides, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, Agfachrome, contain fugitive dyes and are subject to fading depending on the processing and storage.

Color prints have their own particular problems. Cibachrome prints, also known as Ilfochrome, are made from positive slides or transparencies, and the dyes in the prints are fairly stable. “R” prints, also made from transparencies, have unstable dyes and are subject to fading. Prints made from color negatives, or “C” prints have similar color fading problems and are not considered archival. In addition, there are a number of color print processes, silk screened prints made with ink, hand-colored prints, and Polaroid prints, that have their own peculiar archival concerns. (See for information about archival qualities of photographs)

It is especially important to determine the film base of negatives in the collection because nitrate based films are highly flammable and can spontaneously ignite under certain conditions. Nitrate based film was introduced in 1889, and remained in widespread use until the mid-1930s, although the use of nitrate roll and motion picture film continued into the early 1950s.

Acetate based films were introduced in 1923, followed by diacetate in 1937 and triacetate in 1947. While the danger from fire is much less, these acetate films have stability concerns that make them less suitable as permanent archival records. A polyester based film was introduced in 1955, and this film seems to meet archival standards.

All photographic negatives should be individually sleeved in acid free, seamless envelopes. Glass plate negatives need to be stored either vertically or horizontally, depending on size and quantity. Plates smaller than 10×12′ should be stored vertically with an acid free insert every 12 negative to reinforce stability. Plates larger than 10×12″ need to be stored horizontally in small stacks to avoid breakage.