Congratulations to Lynn Betlock and many of you who rescued your family collections from basements in the wake of Hurricane Irene! You have taken the first step toward safe-guarding your family treasures. As archivist of the NEHGS Special Collections, I see everyday the damage done to family collections when improperly stored. Basements, attics, garages, and barns are not the places to store your family materials. Not only are these locations vulnerable during natural disaster, they are also prone to extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity which can cause long term damage to materials.
I like to think of preserving one’s family treasures as a series of steps. Removing them from harm’s way is the first. The next is placing them in a clean, dry, insect free area. Often an interior room in your home that does not experience large fluctuations in temperature is your best bet. Make sure you keep the materials away from any heat or water source. Light is also damaging to materials and can accelerate deterioration. If you like to display family photographs or documents, you may want to consider displaying copies instead of originals. If you do choose to display originals, place them in a hallway or another area of the house away from light sources.
Before purchasing archival supplies, your next step should be to identify what you have, assess the condition, and begin to organize your materials. As you review your papers, do you notice rust from old paper clips or other metal fasteners? If so, remove these carefully as rust can spread and damage documents. Remove items such as elastic bands and pins. Unfold and store flat letters and paper documents as they can begin to separate along the folds. Do you see any signs of mold or insect damage? You may want to consult a professional conservator for more serious damage. Not sure how to organize your family research? Well, you could do what an archivist does. Start by organizing your papers by surname and, within each family, keep documents created by or about an individual together. Organize letters by recipient and place them in chronological order. Keep your family charts, group sheets, and compiled genealogies at the beginning of each family group.
When you are ready to purchase archival supplies, buy from vendors specializing in archival supplies — and beware of the term “acid-free.” If an item is “acid-free” but makes no mention of containing a buffering agent (a chemical which neutralizes acid) its long term preservation is uncertain. It will become acidic over time. The materials you want to purchase should be “lignin-free” or “acid-free with a buffering agent.” Items handled frequently should be placed in enclosures made of Mylar or polypropylene, not plastic! Don’t forget to label your folders and boxes using a soft lead pencil.
By taking the right steps today you will ensure long term preservation of your materials for you and for future generations.
Next week, we’ll wrap up the “protection and preservation” theme with a list of archival supply vendors and reader comments. — LB