Book Review – Preserving Your Family Photographs by Maureen A. Taylor

In an effort to better understand how to care for the variety of images I’ve been collecting, I found a volume on Amazon entitled “Preserving your Family Photographs” by Maureen A. Taylor. Billed as “the nation’s foremost historical photo detective” (Wall Street Journal), I had high expectations for the volume. A historical photo detective she may be, but able to ferret out a good publisher and editor she is not. There is too much repetition of certain points (don’t attempt conservation/restoration work yourself, hire a professional conservator), not enough detail on certain others, and very poor copy editing – frequent typographical errors and larger mistakes like doubling the contents of a table. All of these should have been remedied by an attentive copy editor and/or layout production team. Other mistakes are things like when referencing a vendor for a product (protective storage boxes for cased images), in the text of the volume, she refers readers to the Appendix. In the appendix, a list of archival product vendors are listed, without reference to which products are being offered at each vendor, requiring readers to browse the website of every vendor to find sources. Another mistake is in listing vendors without vetting them – Light Impressions being a prime example. A formerly reliable vendor of outstanding products, for several years now they have become increasingly unreliable, with business practices of a dubious ethical and legal nature (charging customers in full for orders even when products are on back-order, not notifying customers of back-order status, and not refunding money for back-ordered products until the products are in stock). While I understand that there is a definite cost to including color photo illustrations in a printed book, if you are attempting to describe the kinds of deterioration various types of photographs undergo, it is far more helpful to show full-color illustrations of these changes, because the intended audience for this book is not a curator or serious collector, but instead a John or Jane Q. Public who has found a trove of family photos and wants to organize and protect them.

Another bone to pick I have is with discussions of “scrapbooking”. I know that this can be done in a more archival way, especially now that people are more conscious of archival preservation issues and that products that ARE archival are available. To me, “scrapbooking” still brings to mind construction-paper cut-outs, paste glue, pinking shears, black photo corners and silver glitter pens. As someone interested in photographs as complete objects, that’s fingernails on a chalkboard. The idea of trimming a photograph to fit in an unused corner of the page is antithetical – especially if the trimming may remove some meaningful detail or an inscription on the back that could help identify dates, locations or identities. I’ve seen too many of those old black paper albums from the 1910s to 1950s where things were glued in and the writing on the back was completely obliterated by the black paper permanently adhered to the back of the photo.

Thinking of black paper albums, one interesting fact mentioned in the book is that unless the album is in such poor condition overall that it is putting the photos in jeopardy of being bent, torn or otherwise damaged, you are just as well off leaving them in the black paper album so that you do not lose the context of any labels written in the album and of the surrounding images that might help identify the subjects. This is the first time I’ve seen it stated as such, and while from an historian’s perspective, that makes a lot of sense, at the same time, I’d like to see an independent confirmation of this statement that the black paper pages are sufficiently stable as to not do long-term harm to photos stored thereon.

I’m probably not the target audience for this book, as pretty much everything she said was non-revelatory to me. If you are an average Joe looking to preserve and protect family photos, then once you get past the production values issues with the book, there is a lot you can learn without feeling like you’re taking a college-level materials science or chemistry course. For someone with more experience as a collector and/or photographer and is familiar with archival preservation materials and techniques, this book is too basic.

One thought on “Book Review – Preserving Your Family Photographs by Maureen A. Taylor”

  1. Thanks Scott. That is very helpful. I have looked at similarly titled books that also come out wanting. one more to strike off the list. I have been considering asking Barbara Levine (do you know her books?) to do a guest post on preservation of photos and albums for one of my blogs. Re scrapbooking I think it is an abomination!! I want to look at people’s photos not mass produced embellishments that almost obscure the photos entirely. I found this a great post which is not unusual to find on your brilliant blog.

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