Five Ways to Preserve Your Family History Collection

By Sarah Norris, Conservator

April 23 – 29, 2017 is the American Library Association’s Preservation Week, a time for celebrating and promoting the preservation of cultural materials. For Preservation Week 2017, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission offers our top five tips for taking care of your personal family history collection.

  1. Get organized!

The first step in preservation is to know what you have. Organize papers, photos, and books in a logical, consistent manner.  Some possible organizing principles are: by person; by location; by date; or by topic.  Label photos by gently writing all known information on the back in pencil.  As you work, consider how your organization methods might impact a future family member who shares your curiosity about the past.

  1. Mind your environment.

Keep your treasures clean, cool, and dry. Most attics, basements, and storage buildings offer poor storage conditions.  Instead, store materials in indoor environments designed for human comfort.  Good archival targets are 45 – 55% relative humidity and 65 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with minimal fluctuations.  Maintaining cleanliness will discourage damaging pest activity.

Graphic shows best places to store documents and photographs (ie areas of home designed for human comfort).

  1. Use protective enclosures.

Folders, boxes, and cabinets provide additional layers of protection against pests and environmental problems. Using enclosures slows down many deterioration processes in paper, ink, leather, and photographic media.  Look for archives-quality materials made from acid-free, lignin-free paper to absorb natural degradation byproducts.  Storage materials that are PAT-approved (Photographic Activity Test) are tailor-made for photographs.  Folders and boxes also assist with organization and labeling.

  1. Display carefully.

It’s a joy to share your heritage with family and friends, but remember this basic preservation rule: light damage is permanent and irreversible. Light fades inks and dyes and weakens paper and leather.  Consider displaying a copy and storing the original in a dark area for safekeeping.  When displaying originals, reduce light levels however possible: use UV-filtering framing glass; hang items away from bright sunlight or lamps; and turn off the lights when not viewing.

Graphic explains long-term effects of sun exposure (ie fading) on documents.

  1. Handle safely.

Always wash your hands before touching collections to minimize staining and damage from skin oils, lotions, and food residue. Handle photographs with cotton, latex, or nitrile gloves, or your seemingly invisible fingerprints will intensify with passing years.  Work on a flat surface with plenty of room to move materials without snagging brittle edges.  Leave paper flat on the table as much as possible.  Don’t push a resistant book to open flat.  Instead, support it with cushions to avoid breaking the spine.

Taking these steps will help prolong the lifetime of your family history materials.

For more information, visit the Preservation Week page for resources on preserving your family collections.


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