Caring for Your Family’s History

October is a busy around here! In addition to American Archives Month, we’re also celebrating Family History Month. Genealogists, or people who do family history, represent a large portion of our library patronage. Professionals and amateurs alike use our collections of vital records, deeds, letters, photographs, ship logs, and published materials to uncover information about their ancestors. Perhaps you’ve inherited some of these items from your own family? Today, we’re here to share some tips on keeping your own collections safe so they can be enjoyed for years to come.

First, a few basic guidelines:

  • Don’t do anything you can’t undo. This includes laminating, gluing, taping, or writing in ink!
  • Store items in dry, temperature-controlled spaces. Exposure to heat, humidity, and light will speed-up deterioration, so you’ll want to avoid attics, unfinished basements, or sheds. It’s also a good idea to store items at least a few inches off the ground in any space that could possibly flood.
  • Go acid-free. Shoeboxes, cedar chests, and wood-pulp paper contain corrosive acids that shorten the life of your family’s treasures. You can easily find acid-free boxes, folders, and other containers here and here. Craft stores sometimes carry them as well – check the labels before you buy!
  • Keep a clean workspace. Always handle items on a flat, clean surface.
Supplies you’ll need (counter-clockwise): Acid-free boxes, acid-free folders, a pencil, plastic clips, white cotton gloves, and CD-Rs or flash memory sticks.

Documents

Filing cabinets or acid-free boxes provide a safe way to store many paper items, but you may want to invest in a small fireproof safe for vital documents such as birth certificates and irreplaceable historic materials like a family bible or an ancestor’s diary. Store items in appropriately-sized folders, and be sure to unfold items before filing them. Use plastic paper clips to hold groups of papers together – metal clips can become rusty or deform paper when items are stored for a long time. Delicate books and larger items like certificates are best stored flat in their own acid-free boxes or folders.

Newspapers contain acids and lignin, corrosive chemicals which can damage paper and other materials, so you should store news clippings in separate folders from other paper collections. It’s a good idea to copy important news clippings onto acid-free paper as well, because newspapers break down very quickly and can become yellow and brittle in just a few months.

Frame important documents like diplomas using acid-free and lignin-free matting, and avoid cutting documents to fit in a frame or using tape or other adhesives to hold them in place. If your framed document will be displayed in a brightly-lit area, consider investing in UV-blocking glass to keep documents from becoming faded and damaged.

Photographs

Photographs require some specialized care and should always be kept separately from other materials. When handling a photograph, wear clean cotton gloves to reduce fingerprints, and hold it lightly but securely with two hands. Prints, transparencies, and negatives can be stored either vertically or horizontally, but flat storage is preferable if an item is badly damaged. Store items in folders rather than envelopes to reduce damage as the image is removed and replaced. Once you’ve foldered your photos, place them in an acid-free box, packed tightly enough that folders don’t slide around, but not so densely that it’s difficult to retrieve an item.

If you are placing newer photographs in albums, choose acid-free albums and album pages made from either a non-reactive plastic like polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene, or from acid-free paper with archival-quality mounting corners. Photos printed on inkjet printers or home photo printers are not preservation quality and are likely to fade over time, so be sure to keep a digital copy of the original image in case you need to make additional prints later.

New Media

Now that many documents are moving entirely to computers – from bank statements to that family photo you took with your iPhone at the beach – it’s important to think about how to preserve your born-digital materials. The key mantra of digital preservation is back up, back up, back up! You should always have at least one backup of important documents and digital photographs at all times. External hard drives provide a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to back up your files, and many come with software that backs up your files automatically (either as individual files are created and saved, or on a schedule you set).

Even backups can fail, though, so it’s a good idea to have a second backup as well, preferably stored in a separate location from your computer to help protect against theft and natural disasters. You can give a copy of your backup files to a trusted family member or friend, or if you prefer, store files on flash media, CDs, or an external hard drive and place them in a safe deposit box at the bank. All forms of digital media degrade over time, so check your backups once a year or so to make sure they are still working, and migrate files to a new medium if your current option looks like it’s going the way of the floppy disk!

In just a few easy steps, you can ensure the longevity of your priceless family documents. The Society for American Archivists and the Library of Congress provide several excellent documents for further reading. If you have questions, please stop by or email a member of the library staff.  We’re happy to help you get started!

–Heather and Jennifer


4 thoughts on “Caring for Your Family’s History

    1. Thanks for the comment – glad our post was helpful! Feel free to contact one of our archivists if you have any specific questions. And keep checking back because we have two new family history-related posts coming up later this week!

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