3 Essential Ways to Preserve Your Family’s History

By on October 7, 2020
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As a family historian, you may often find yourself the caretaker of more historical artifacts than you know what to do with. Aunts, cousins, or family friends might seek you out with stacks of old photo albums or letters, assuming yours is the best home for these collections. Even if you’re happy to have more historical documents to pour over for ancestry research, some of these items may not be in the best physical condition. Paper is a delicate material that degrades over time, so the task of caring for your family’s fragile artifacts may feel more like a burden than a blessing if you aren’t prepared to do it right.  

If you find yourself responsible for the physical documents of your family’s history, you’ll need to know how to best handle, store, and preserve these items. Now that you’re probably spending more time at home because of COVID-19, the time has come to care for these pieces of history. 

Handling

Moisture, light exposure, air pollutants, and contact with other contaminants can cause the breakdown of vulnerable Ypaper fibers. The best method of preserving paper is to handle it as little as possible. Less handling during a document’s lifespan ensures much longer life, but that’s not always an option for family historians who use these documents for research. 

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When you do have to touch these documents, keep your hands and workspace clean and never place food or drink around any documents or work areas. Don’t earmark pages by folding or using paper clips, rubber bands, acidic paper inserts, or adhesive materials. Wear nitrile or white cotton gloves to prevent oils and other contaminants from human hands, but be aware that wearing gloves can sometimes lead to accidents because you’re apt to be a little clumsier with gloves on. Photos, however, should always be handled with gloves to prevent fingerprints.

The environment you’re working in should be free of dust or mold and away from any other environmental factors like harsh lighting, windows, radiators, or vents. Paper documents with water damage or other exposure to pollutants can affect your health and contaminate other papers in your workspace. Some conservators use goggles or face masks in these cases to protect yourself from mold spores and other hazards.

Storage

Paper storage factors are as important as handling since this is where your artifacts will be spending most of their time. The temperature of the storage area should stay around room temperature (68 to 72°F) and the humidity should stay as low as possible (between 15 and 65%). Attics, basements, and any other location with a risk of temperature and moisture fluctuations should be avoided. 

Storage areas should be chosen specifically to prevent any breakdown over time. Acid-free folders and boxes work best, and damaged papers should be stored separately from undamaged papers to prevent the spreading of contaminants. Flat storage is preferred, especially for books and other bound documents, but avoid stacking books when possible.

Preservation

Research continues even during COVID-19, and if you’ve been inundated with requests from family for information, perhaps you’re wondering if there is a better way. Digitization is the best way to ensure your family history will last for future generations and to grant access to documents without risking further damage to the originals. The digital preservation process is worth doing right the first time, even if that means investing more time and energy into the process. Consider consulting an experienced digital preservation expert when undertaking larger projects, but if a document only needs to be scanned for one-off research purposes, here are a few scanning guidelines to keep in mind.

Your scanning bed should always be larger than the material being scanned. Never apply pressure to papers in the scanning bed, and always use book cradles or wedges when handling bound papers. Special care should be used when scanning photos, newspapers, prints, and any other delicate or brittle materials. Patch tears with archival tape before scanning. For family historians who are thinking about displaying a replica of an original document, use archival-quality paper to extend the life of the replica.

Advice from digitization experts may come in handy when planning a larger family history project, especially if you plan to share or display it in some way. Consulting professionals and planning ahead will help you decide where to start. Experts also have more advanced techniques and resources at hand, like binding, cloud storage, digital document cleanup, and metadata tagging for searchability. 

Taking care of paper artifacts, while it may seem daunting, isn’t impossible! Family historians have an important job, so it’s important to take preservation steps as soon as possible. 

Farica Chang heads a team of dedicated archivists invested in preservation.  As Principal of Anderson Archival, a digital archiving company in St. Louis, Missouri, Farica has extensive experience in many aspects of the archival process. Anderson Archival increases the impact, relevance, and accessibility of historical document collections with a thorough, principled digital preservation process.

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3 Essential Ways to Preserve Your Family’s History