Preserving Your Family Papers

Keeping History
By Georgen Gilliam Charnes

In attics and basements all over Nantucket, bits of history are waiting to be rescued. Letters your great grandfather wrote to your great grandmother during the Civil War; your aunt’s 1918 diary of a summer visit that included picking blackberries, or perhaps the journal of a voyage your great-great uncle made as a boy aboard a whaler-all may lie forgotten in a chest amid old newspapers. These are examples of things found by community members and brought into the NHA Research Library in the last year. These personal papers provide insight into life on Nantucket and add flesh to the bare
bones of history.

I’m often asked how best to preserve these precious documents. The first step is to collect and identify your family history materials. Families often assume that Aunt Rosie still has her grandmother’s diary and her daughter Mabel surely knows where it is. Sometimes Mabel does know, but when Rosie dies, a well-meaning neighbor helps out by clearing out all the “junk” that her mother accumulated, including the family papers that were piled in a drawer with clippings. It may be years before someone remembers grandmother’s diary, when it’s far too late. Find out where your family documents are, identify individuals in photographs or mentioned in letters, and label them now.

Next, consider where and how you store your materials. Take them out of the damp basement and the hot attic. The ideal conditions for storage of paper material would be a steady temperature of no higher than 70°F with a steady relative humidity of 45%, clean air with good circulation, protection from light (especially the ultraviolet light of sunlight and fluorescents), and free of infestation.Basements are usually too damp, resulting in mold. Attics usually have a fluctuating temperature, which causes paper fibers to expand and contract and promotes their breakdown. Storing or hanging your heirlooms near heating sources may also damage them. Bringing your treasured papers and photographs into the main part of the house will immediately promote their preservation.

Remove extraneous materials that won’t stand up over time or will damage other documents stored nearby. Rubber bands, paperclips, and staples that can rust should all be removed; if necessary, replace them with stainless-steel paperclips or staples or plastic. Fasteners are not necessary if materials are placed in separate folders. Don’t store delicate paper with framed items or other objects that might tear them. Also, don’t store newspaper clippings with other paper documents or photographic materials; newsprint will eventually contribute to the breakdown of paper fibers, discoloring anything around it permanently. To preserve newspaper clippings, photocopy them onto acid-free paper.

Whether you prefer to store you’re your documents in a binder or a box, there are archival-quality supplies available. If an item is fragile or torn, you should store it in a clear polyester-plastic folder or sleeve, which holds pieces together, provides support, can be seen through, and protects your document. Don’t laminate the items you want to save or repair with tape. These kind of repairs irreparably stain or damage the items you want to save.

A wide range of good-quality supplies is available in office supply stores or from online sources (a Web search on the term “archival supplies” brings up many sources). Use paper labeled “acid-free” or  “archival quality.” Don’t use typical office products such as brown paper wrappers, manila file folders, or commercial boxes as they are usually too acidic in their chemical composition and will break down over time, damaging your documents as they do. Choosing plastic storage mediums can be a little tricky: many of them are not appropriate, even though they’re created expressly for document storage. Those photograph scrapbooks with the sticky pages, for example, should not be used. Many of the plastics used to create enclosures are made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which breaks down over time and will actually damage items stored in them; glassine should also be avoided, as it absorbs water from the environment. Plastic enclosures should be polyester (Mylar), polyethylene, or polypropylene to be archival quality.

Although the science of storing archival materials can be complicated, adhering to these few points will go a long way to preserving your family-history materials for generations to come.

Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004.