Sorry, I never got around to those promised posts because, well, I’ve become a genealogy addict. But don’t you worry, this post is relevant even to people who are sick of reading about genealogy.
Mom and I were going through some old photo albums, and some of the photographs were in pretty bad shape. For all the talk about concerns over how long inkjet prints of digital pictures might last, some of Mom’s 30-year-old prints are, well, fading fast. Meanwhile, Mom has some prints that were taken 30 years ago that look like they could have been processed yesterday, except for the clothes the people were wearing.

I remember almost 15 years ago, when a neighbor’s house burned, going through their rescued photo albums, opening up the drenched pages, taking out whatever photos would come out in one piece, and putting them on towels scattered about the house to dry. I noticed that Polaroids are very difficult to get remove intact from sticky album pages, even under ideal conditions. Well, now I wonder if anyone pays attention to the acid content in those album pages and what else might contribute to pictures deterriorating.

But I’m not going to spend too much time thinking about that (why not leave that to the infamous self-proclaimed aristocrat and scientist?) because there’s an easy solution.

Scan those bad boys.

Most people have mountains of photographs, so it’ll take a while, but if you set out to scan a page a day, or a few pages a week on Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll eventually get through them. Burn them to a quality CD–I know among the name-brand discs you find in stores, the most consistent performer you’ll find is Kodak. If you buy in bulk, your best bet is either Mitsui or Taiyo Yuden, which are the two brands that CD duplicators most frequently use. The estimated lifespan under reasonable conditions for a high-quality CD-R is around 100 years. Some of my cheap house-brand CD-Rs haven’t lasted two years. So buy good stuff, and store the discs at room temperature. Don’t put them in the attic unless they’re full of pictures of former significant others whom you wish you’d never met. Remember the basic scientific principle that raising the temperature 10 degrees doubles the speed of a chemical reaction, so in theory, raising the temperature 10 degrees halves life expectancy. Storing your CD-Rs in a closed box in the basement, assuming it’s not terribly humid down there (40% relative humidity is optimal, according to Kodak), would be a good idea.

Actually, that same principle would be just as true for your prints as well.

Anyway, what do you do when the prints have already started to fade? Scan them anyway. Sometimes the scan ends up looking better than the original. If not, then try turning them into B&W pictures. Use your imaging software to convert it to greyscale, then play with the brightness and contrast. You’ll lose the color, but you might very well save the print. In the case of some of the old pictures of me, it’ll be harder to tell that I had blonde hair when I was really young, but it’ll at least be possible to tell what I looked like.

If you don’t have a scanner or you’re dissatisfied with the speed or quality of your existing scanner, I can recommend Canon’s LiDE series. They’re inexpensive and offer a very nice combination of speed and image quality. Most of them get their power from the USB port, which saves you a power outlet. And they’re small and light enough that they can fit into a laptop bag, making it possible to take a scanner and laptop along with you when you visit family and scan some old photos.

Getting those photos into digital form gives you other advantages as well. Some imaging software allows you to add captions or descriptions to the photos. If you’re Linux-savvy, you can set up a nice family website using one of the 12 bazillion gallery programs out there. You can keep it on your local LAN if you don’t want that stuff on the public Internet–you and your family can still enjoy punching through pictures on a strategically placed computer the same way you flip through old photo albums. If you’ve got a nice color printer, you can make as many reprints as you want, and if they fade, you can always just print them again. And while you’re burning CDs, you can burn an extra copy or two and keep them in someone else’s basement. If disaster strikes, insurance can replace most material items, but not the one-of-a-kinds like your photographs. Fortunately it’s easy to ensure they’re no longer one-of-a-kinds.