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

The truth about sticky albums

Those of us from the film photography era will recognize the glue page or sticky album that dominated the scene for a long time – from about the 1970s to the early 2000s. These photo albums were extremely popular because they came with everything included. Unlike other albums that required hinges or photos of a certain size to insert into pre-cut pockets, the glue page album was 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 seemed to provide a protective layer for fragile photos. You could touch the page and not worry about fingerprints or other damaging effects on these photos. It seemed like the perfect way to store photos – keeping them safe while still within easy reach.

A protection promise gone wrong

Today, glue page photo albums are becoming a nightmare for family historians and anyone interested in working with print photos. With increased interest in digitization and memory preservation, more and more people are trying to extract old photos that have sat in such albums for years. They are finding that the glue and plastic have done some serious damage to their prints and that these are actually worse off in these albums than if they had stored them 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 includes highly acidic ingredients. The acid can eat into prints over time. In severe cases, the print has glue stripes burning through the image.

Insidious Mylar

The second problem is the mylar sheet, also known as the plastic cover. Mylar was extremely popular for photo albums and provided a scratch-resistant and clear cover. That said, it was also good at keeping the acidic effects from the glue entrenched in albums. As a result, prints were sandwiched between two damaging layers. In cheaper albums, a lower grade plastic (PVC) was used and this further compounded the toxic  effects on photos.

A few ways to get photos out…carefully

Method 1

The first step, in salvaging memories literally stuck in glue page albums, is to remove the photos from these 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 these photos. The goal is to make a clean separation between the pages and photos.

You should ideally use a thin tool that can cut through the glue bond while leaving the print largely untouched. Interestingly, waxed dental floss can be your friend here. Yes, it’s designed for tight interdental spaces but, in this case, you can insert it underneath the print and slowly run it back and forth to separate the print from the page. So effective is this technique that it’s even used regularly by museum conservators for delicate separation work.

Method 2

Adhesive removers are a second method. These sometimes come as a kit with an applicator tool or or as a standalone product. You will still need a thin tool to get under the print and apply the remover. It won’t hurt the print, but the remover breaks the adhesive bond chemically and allows the print to be removed easily. However, this method can get messy and tiresome as it takes time to apply.

Method 3

A third method involves a micro-spatula and hair dryer. Use the hair dryer to warm the micro-spatula, but don’t 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, but it can be more abrupt, so proceed with care.

Temperature changes can affect old glue very quickly. If the album is not very fragile, place it in the freezer for a few minutes. Don’t leave it in for long as that results in condensation and unwanted moisture on the album when you bring it out into room temperature. But the simple drop in temperature can render the adhesive brittle after a few minutes, and the prints will then be easier to remove.

The risk of losing details on the back

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 these prints. This was a common practice in the past to record important details about photos, including dates taken and other facts of historical context. Some or all of this of can be lost in trying to extricate photos from albums. In some cases, this may be unavoidable. In others, a more careful method could help you retain some important details.

Digitize your newly freed photos

Once you’ve managed to free your prints, the next important step in preserving these memories is to digitize them. Avoid stacking them on top of each other at this point, or stuffing them into a box. There is likely to be some glue residue on the backs of these photos and they can get stuck together if you are not careful. You can use an adhesive remover or place the prints on a clean sheet of paper prior to scanning them on a flatbed scanner. The adhesive remover is recommended in order to clear up any residue that could prove to be problematic down the road.

When it’s time to bring in the pros

If you are dealing with a fragile album, removing photos in order to digitize them may not be a straightforward task. Consider outsourcing it to a professional service with experience handling such delicate projects. Not only do they have people trained in such work but they also have the tools and technology to ensure that your photos are safely removed and then optimally digitized.

Photo digitization is ultimately the best way to keep your memories safe from the elements. Not only that, you can work with digital images to restore or further enhance them. In the right hands, photo editing software can pull off miracles, including fixing rips, discoloration, fading and more.

For most people above a certain age, sticky photo albums are an inescapable part of their family archives. But, as we can tell from the techniques described here, it’s possible to rescue old photos trapped in these albums and preserve their memories for the long run.