Here is a quote from the New York Times:
A recipe for Toxic Photo Soup: Layer 1,000 photos in a large, watertight plastic storage tub. Place high on basement shelving unit. Fail to notice small, leaky basement window nearby. Marinate, unattended, three to four years. Open and serve.
Yield: 1,000 blank sheets of sopping photo paper and four gallons of black, stinky, toxic rainwater-chemical soup.
That’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s exactly what happened to the entire photographic record of my wife’s college and med school years. To this day, I have no idea what she looked like back then. For all I know, she could have had an eye patch and a mohawk.
The above words were written by David Pogue. However, the similar stories could have been written by any of thousands of other people. Many of us store old photographs in less-than-ideal conditions. Even worse, these are often our only copies!
David Pogue then goes on to describe an inexpensive and very practical solution: have them scanned. He goes on to describe one scanning service that he used that is much cheaper than most of the rest. Pogue was obviously pleased with the results.
Pogue suggests keeping the digital copies as backups in case of loss or damage to the originals. I would go a bit further; I'd suggest keeping MULTIPLE backup copies, each stored in a different location. In fact, keeping a copy at your grown children's residence or that of your parents would be a good idea. (You might want to remove the photos of that lover you never mentioned before, however.)
You can read David Pogue's excellent article at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/technology/personaltech/14pogue.html?_r=1&em=&pagewanted=print&oref=slogin
One warning: The New York Times often posts articles on the company's web site for a few days and then removes them. The article is there as I write these words but may disappear in the next few days.