Preparing for Disaster

Just about every part of the country has some sort of natural disaster from tornadoes to earthquakes, but it doesn’t take a dramatic event to damage your collection, even a heavy downpour can cause flooding.  While time is often of the essence when getting ready for a major event there are things you can do to prevent inadvertently ruining your photos and family treasures.  There is basically a four step approach to disasters--prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Prevention and Preparedness = Protection
For everyday protection from temperature and humidity fluctuations, store items in acid and lignin free boxes and consider using a desiccant box. Desiccant packs contain chemicals that absorb moisture and can help protect items stored with it from mildew.  Be sure to read the instructions. When the chemicals turn color, follow the steps to recharge it. They are available from most library and archive suppliers. Ask your public library for a list of suppliers that they use.

Big plastic tubs are not good storage units for the long-term because the gases they can release cause injury to your pictures. That said, if you know heavy weather is coming your way and you don’t want material to get wet, invest in a few of these thick plastic tubs with secure lids. They will prevent your acid and lignin free storage boxes from getting soaked (provided the water doesn’t rise above the lid).

Pick a good place in your house to store things. Ideally a windowless interior closet is best, but if you don’t have someplace like that then you can create a suitable place.  Make a buffer between the environment and your items by nesting acid and lignin free boxes, placing smaller boxes inside of larger ones.

Never store photos and family memorabilia in attics, basements, or garages.  These places are hazardous due to fluctuating environmental conditions and pests.

One of the best preparedness tips is to scan your pictures. TIFF files scanned at 600 dpi and 100% scale is the recommended format and always scan in color (even if it’s a black and white photo).  Don’t forget to scan the front and back of each item. Use file names/numbers with “back” or “reverse” appended for the flip-side of pictures so you won’t lose track of what goes with what.

Once you’ve created those digital files what do you do with them?  The files are your back-up in case something happens to the original, but you need to take steps to save those files too.  Try an online back-up service or a portable hard drive device (stored off-site in a safe location).  That way you’re covered even if your computer crashes or gets destroyed. If disaster strikes, you’ll still be able to restore your digital files either from your online service or from your extra hard drive.  

Response and Recovery
So the inevitable happens and your photographs are wet and dirty, before you toss them contact a professional for advice and keep a disaster kit nearby with the following:

> Contact information for a local preservation company such as the Northeast Document Conservation Center (, which maintains a 24-hour emergency hotline. Conservators are trained in stabilizing damage and hiring one is worth the investment. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works ( has a free referral service on their website to help you locate professionals in your area.

> An emergency kit of distilled water, blotting paper and unprinted newsprint (from an art-supply store) and disposable non-latex gloves. Keep them in a waterproof container. You’ll need these supplies to wash prints and air-dry them.

A de-humidifier can help dry out sodden pictures while fans help circulate the air.

> Don’t pull apart any photos that are stuck to each other.  Instead, freeze them to prevent mold growth until a conservator can save the images. 

Each type of photograph requires a special approach, but these basic tips will at least get you ready for the next disaster. 


Maureen Taylor ( is the author of “Preserving Your Family Photographs” (Picture Perfect Press, 2010). If you have a photo related question, visit

Other articles in the 15 May 2011 Weekly Discovery: 

> Tips for Family History Travel

> Family History Tip: Facebook Page for Tornado Victims’ Photos 

> Photo Corner