How to Salvage Memories (literally) Stuck in Physical Photo Albums


The Truth About Sticky Albums

If you’re familiar with the film photography era, you’ve likely encountered magnetic photo albums (aka sticky or glue page albums) that dominated the scene for a long time – from about the 1970s to the early 2000s. These photo albums were extremely popular because advertising played off their ease of use and the fact that they came with everything you needed

Unlike other albums that required hinges or photos of a certain size to insert into precut pockets, sticky albums were a breeze to work with. You pulled back the plastic clear page, positioned the print or prints, placed the plastic page back on top, and you were done. The plastic seemingly provided a protective layer for fragile photos. You could touch the page and not worry about fingerprints or other damaging effects on your photos. While this type of photo album seemed like the perfect way to store photos – keeping them safe while still within easy reach, sticky danger lurks on and underneath the surface!

Common Sticky Photo Album Issues 

The truth is that these photo albums are a nightmare for family historians and anyone interested in working with print photos. With increased interest in digitization and memory preservation, a greater number of people find themselves wondering how to remove pictures from old sticky photo albums. It’s easy to get frustrated attempting to extract old photos that have sat in these albums for years. Although they have no magnets, the cardboard pages have a sticky, adhesive coating that grips photos and doesn’t want to let go. It’s a shame when people discover that the glue and plastic have inflicted serious damage to their vintage prints. In fact, they fared worse in these albums than if they had been stored in shoeboxes.

Corrosive Glue

The glue probably has the most destructive effect. It’s an industrial variety that can be quickly applied to multiple pages and contains highly acidic ingredients. The acid can eat into prints over time and in severe cases, cause glue stripes to burn through the image. The bottom line is that the adhesive bonds with the photos, which causes them to curl and tear when you try to remove them. 

Insidious Mylar

The second problem is the Mylar sheet, also known as the plastic cover. Mylar was an extremely popular material in photo albums, providing a scratch-resistant and clear cover. This added insult to injury because the prints were sandwiched between two damaging layers. The plastic sealed the photographs in the acidic cardboard and emitted gasses that attacked the images. In cheaper albums, the destructive chemical polyvinyl chloride (PVC), was used and this further compounded the toxic effects on the photos. As a result, it’s common to see yellow stains on the plastic cover, the cardboard backing, and the photos. Read on to find out how to separate stuck pictures from the pages without ruining them.

Tips for Removing Photos From Old Sticky Albums

Method 1: Dental Floss

The first step in salvaging memories literally stuck in glue page albums is to remove the photos as slowly and carefully as possible. If you try to pull pages apart and peel prints off hastily, you may end up ripping out parts of the photos. The goal is to make a clean separation between the pages and photos.

Ideally, you should use a thin tool that can cut through the glue bond while leaving the print largely untouched. Interestingly, waxed dental floss is a great option because it’s designed for tight interdental spaces. In this context, you can insert it underneath the print and slowly run it back and forth to separate the print from the page. This technique is so effective, it’s used regularly by museum conservators for delicate separation work.

Method 2: Adhesive Removers

Adhesive removers are a second method. They sometimes come as a kit with an applicator tool or as a standalone product. You’ll still need a thin tool to get under the print and apply the remover. While this won’t hurt the print, the remover breaks the adhesive bond chemically and allows the print to be removed easily. The primary downsides to this method are that it can get messy and takes time and patience

Method 3: Micro-Spatula and Hair Dryer

A third method involves a micro-spatula and hair dryer. Use the hair dryer to warm the micro-spatula, being careful not to get it too hot. Then carefully insert the spatula underneath the print, moving slowly and carefully until the print is freed. This method works the same way as the floss, however, it can be more abrupt, so proceed with care. 

Temperature changes can affect old glue very quickly. If the album isn’t very fragile, place it in the freezer for a few minutes. Don’t leave it in for too long as that results in condensation and unwanted moisture on the album when it’s brought into room temperature. The simple drop in temperature can render the adhesive brittle after a few minutes, thereby making the prints easier to remove.

The Risks Involved with Removing Photos from Sticky Pages: Proceed with Caution 

A bit of a warning at this point: all of the methods described above are likely to wipe out any writing on the backs of the prints. This was a common practice in the past to record important details about photos, including dates taken and other historical tidbits. Some or all of this can be lost in trying to extricate photos from albums. In some cases, this may be unavoidable. In others, a more careful method can help you retain some important details.

Digitize Your Newly Freed Photos

Once you’ve managed to free your prints from sticky pages, the next important step in preserving precious memories is to digitize them. Avoid stacking them on top of each other at this point, or stuffing them into a box. Some glue residue will likely remain on the back of these photos and they can get stuck together if you’re not careful. We recommend using an adhesive remover in order to clear up any residue because this could prove problematic down the road. In order to scan them yourselves, you’ll need to invest in a good flatbed scanner. Then you’ll need to determine the best resolution to scan the photos based on their intended use. 

Digitizing Photos Without Removal From Old, Sticky Albums

If you’re dealing with a fragile album, removing photos in order to digitize them may not be a straightforward task. Consider outsourcing the album to a professional service with experience handling such delicate projects. Professional scanning services have people trained in this work and they also have the tools and technology to ensure that your photos are safely removed and then optimally digitized. If you decide to go the professional route, it pays to do some research since all scanning services aren’t created equal. 

Whether you opt for DIY scanning or a professional service, photo digitization is ultimately the best way to keep your memories safe from the elements. With the right skills and practice, it’s possible to perform magic with photo editing software, including fixing rips, discoloration, and fading, removing unwanted objects, and more. And digital images can be enhanced, shared, and used to create albums and cool gifts. 

For most people above a certain age, sticky photo albums are an inescapable part of their family archives. Thankfully, by using the techniques described above or choosing a professional scanning service to do the heavy lifting, it’s possible to rescue old photos trapped in these albums and preserve these memories for posterity. Your relatives will be so grateful you didn’t use these once ubiquitous magnetic photo albums, which believe it or not, still exist!