January 12, 2010

The Practical Archivist has MOVED!

This practicalarchivist.blogspot.com blog, the one you're reading right now, is frozen in time.

It is obsolete.

I should probably nuke it (all the content has been imported into the new site) but this was my very first blog, and I've gotten surprisingly nostalgic about it. ::sniffle::

All Practical Archivist content is now at


(click above URL to visit)


  • I get asked all the time by family archivists "What scanner should I buy?" Since it's such a popular question, I've created links to the two scanners I personally own and use (one portable, one that can scan slides & film): Practical Archivist Recommends

  • Follow me on Twitter I come from a long line of clippers, and as far as I'm concerned Twitter is the new scissors n' newspaper. @sally_j

February 08, 2008

Paper Vs. Plastic: Which One Is Better?

If you're tackling a family photo project, you'll need to think about what kind of storage supplies will work best for you.

Basically, you have two choices when choosing an album or photo storage box:

1. Paper.
2. Plastic.

The good news is you can find high quality archival storage products made out of either material.

But the bad news is there are plenty of junky materials out there.

A cheap photo storage box can cause more damage than it prevents.

Whether you choose paper or plastic, the safest supplies are the ones that have passed an independent test called the Photographic Activity Test. Click through to learn more about the test and why the term "archival" is meaningless when applied to consumer products.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both plastic and paper.

Plastic is good at protecting your treasures from fingerprints and spills.

Photo and documents that get handled all the time will be well served by putting them clear enclosures such as polypropelene and polyethelene. You (or third cousin who refuses to wear gloves) can see the images without touching them. Encapsulation is a good choice for fragile or torn paper that you can't afford to have repaired by a conservator.

But for storage, I prefer paper. Here's why:

Paper breathes.

Here in America we tend to put a lot of faith in the protective power of plastic. One visit to a grocery store here in the States will illustrate that fact very clearly. Everything from candy to beef to tomatoes is sold shrink-wrapped in plastic. I've traveled enough to know that this isn't the case in the rest of the world.

When it comes to archival storage, the fact that plastic doesn't breathe can actually cause more problems than it prevents.

Now, don't get me wrong -- plastic is great for keeping bad things out like moisture and fingerprints.


Photographs, film and tape are all made from materials that change over time. When these materials change, they can leach chemicals or give off gases that will loop back and inflict self damage if they are "sealed in their own juices" as my preservation instructor used to say.

Here's a striking visual example of what I'm talking about.

If this tape had been stored in plastic instead of cardboard, the acids and offgassing that burned brown stains into the box would have stayed inside and attacked the tape instead.

Photo of paper bags by tanakawho, some rights reserved.
Photo of tape case by Richard Hess.

That Richard Hess link will take you to his post that explains in more detail what's going on in the photo, and why he thinks tape has escaped the vinegar syndrome that has plagued film.

January 14, 2008

How to Organize Photos: Warning! This Advice May Shock You

Contrary to popular belief,

archivists do not keep everything

Whaaat? An archivist?

Throwing things out?!


Ya heard me.

I spent more time learning the art of archival appraisal than any other skill while in grad school. And by appraisal, I mean deciding what to keep and what to toss -- based on what items have enduring value.

But aren't archivists the keepers of our shared history?

Yes, but...

CLICK HERE to read the rest of How to Organize Photos: Warning! This Advice May Shock You
That link will take you to the rest of this article at the NEW Practical Archivist website. (I can't bring myself to delete this old Blogspot one. Sentimental fool that I am.)

December 02, 2007

When "acid free" isn't actually acid free: Can you trust archival supplies to be safe?

Photo by Joe Nangle

I've been having some trust issues lately.

There's a popular archival supplier whose products seem to be slipping in quality. Then they sent out an email with claims about CD longevity that were misleading at best, utterly false at worst.

This is a HUGE dilemma for me. If I can't trust the quality of their products, I can't recommend them to my readers. And I know people come here to find reliable information about supplies. (Note: The photo storage boxes for sale in the left column are NOT from this manufacturer.)

I'm digging and doing some research. I'll keep you posted about what I discover.

Anyhoo. When I started digging, I discovered Mark Welch's articles. Mark is a scrapbooker. He's also a skeptic. I like to think of him as The Skeptical Scrapbooker, but his pen name is actually the Scrapbook Critic.

How Reliable is the "Acid Free" Label?

Back in early 2006, Mark learned about pH pens for the first time. Test papers for acid content in the comfort of your own home? What a great idea!

Then he visited several craft and scrapbook stores to purchase one so he could test scrapbooking paper. Turns out, scrapbook stores don't actually sell pH testing pens. Interesting, wouldn't you say? So Mark made several purchases online.

In an odd twist, it turns out some of the pens didn't work at all. See Mark's articles (links below) for more details on why certain pens failed.

Way more shocking, however, was the discovery that some papers sold at scrapbooking stores and via home sales were, in fact, acidic. All of those had been clearly marked as acid free, buffered and/or lignin free. Yeowch!

Acid Free Is Not Enough

Paper needs to be lignin free as well. Lignins are a by-product of the paper making process. It's the lignins that turn non-acidic paper to acidic. In other words, something that is acid free today will become acidic over time if the lignins have not been removed.

Benefit of the Doubt

As for me, I am so obsessed with the independent Photographic Activity Test (PAT) that I've always given manufacturers the benefit of the doubt on the "acid free" label. I figured since it was so easy to test at home, a manufacturer would be crazy to pass something acidic as acid free.

Turns out, I was wrong.

Check out Mark's articles for more details -- including the names of manufacturers he no longer trusts:

[Mark's] conclusion is that scrapbookers should buy a pH pen and test each paper they use.

  • This is not especially cumbersome: it takes just seconds to distress the back of a page and mark it with a pH pen.
  • Scrupulous retailers should be willing to do this at the checkout stand while the customer watches.
  • It is not enough to test just one paper from a manufacturer, because paper composition and pH levels may change from one print run to the next.
  • Unfortunately, a pH pen will not indicate a problem if paper is currently pH neutral, yet contains materials (such as lignins) which will degrade into acids in the future.

Thinking about buying your own pen?
Check out the selection of pH pens at Amazon. And when you purchase anything from Amazon via that link (regardless of what it is) it's like leaving a tip for yours truly, without having to fork over any extra money.

November 14, 2007

Can you fix a pixelated photo?

From the folks at Photojojo comes advice on how to de-pixelate photos:

Ever had Grandma Edna email you her latest vacation cruise photos, only to find the images so small and pixelated that she and Gramps look like they were made of LEGOs?

VectorMagic has the answer.

A free website from the folks down at Stanford, VectorMagic takes your raster images and turns them into smooth vector drawings. Unlike raster images, vector drawings are made of geometric shapes instead of pixels, so you can infinitely resize them with no fuzzy or blockiness! This makes them ideal for blowing up a small photo to, say, the size of your bedroom wall.

Try it for yourself...
Vector Magic is web-based and completely free. No registration or login required.

Vector Magic — Convert Photographs to Vector Images Automatically

Next up: Details on what happened when I put Vector Magic through the paces, including before & after screen shots. You know, the old side by side comparison. (Hint: The results were mixed.)

September 10, 2007

Ambrotype or Daguerreotype? A quick and easy way to tell the difference

There are two types of cased images you might find in your family collection: ambrotypes and daguerreotypes.

The quick and easy way to tell the difference between the two is that a daguerreotype will look like a mirror when you move it in the light. An ambrotype will not.

I was thinking about this today when I put away an ambrotype I purchased on ebay. It was listed as a daguerreotype. I don't think this was a deliberate deception, just ignorance.

For more information about these hauntingly beautiful cased images, check out Wikipedia's entries for ambrotype and daguerreotype.

The daguerreotype entry says this:

Daguerreotypy continues to be practiced by enthusiastic photographers to this day, although in much smaller numbers; there are thought to be fewer than 100 worldwide. Its appeal lies in the "magic mirror" effect of light reflected from the polished silver plate through the perfectly sharp silver image, and in the sense of achievement derived from the dedication and hand-crafting required to make a daguerreotype.

Wait a minute...

There are artists who use these historic photo processes today?

Talk about a beautiful anachronism! I would pay oodles of money for a daguerreotype or ambrotype of an iPod. Not that I have a budget for that kind of frivolity, but still. The Wiki has several links to these contemporary artists if that idea intrigues you, too.

[photo credit] "Erika" Ambrotype on black glass by artist/photographer Quinn Jacobson. Made May 2007, Viernheim, Germany.

UPDATE: OK. Forget what I said about the iPod. That was just the first thing that came into my head. What I really want is to see a daguerreotype or ambrotype of the Neverwas Haul.