Preserving Your Family Treasures
By Todd Pattison
By Todd Pattison
Your family collections might be your closest connection to your ancestors. The items they made, used, or owned can give you a much better picture of who they were, their lives, and what they considered important. Your family treasures can even help you with your genealogy research, especially manuscript records like vital records kept in a Bible or other religious text, letters from different family members, and documents that were issued by governments, associations, or other organizations. Preserving them for yourself and future generations is important; this is a legacy you are tasked with protecting for the next generations. While it can seem daunting, especially if you have large amounts of material, there are written resources, professional experts, and commercially available housing materials that are designed to help you. This subject guide provides information, tips, and resources to get you well on the way towards responsibly caring for your family treasures.
Live broadcast: January 17, 2019
Presented by: Todd Pattison, Conservator
Description: Whether you have a room full of materials or just a small box you need to carefully preserve the family treasures in your possessions. This webinar will give a brief overview of the nature and deterioration of physical objects and how to care for materials in a home setting.
Preservation is an essential function if you are the custodian of family treasures. It is the umbrella term for all the different things you do in caring for collections and encompasses many different activities, from keeping paper-based materials out of direct light to carefully handling objects when you use them. Preservation activities are ones that affect your entire collection and you will get the greatest return for time and money spent by focusing on those activities first before considering conservation treatment of individual items.
Nature of Materials
Paper-based materials, like letters, manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, and bound volumes might be the most common things in your family collection. The deterioration of these materials will in part depend on how the items were originally made. These are called internal factors or ones that are part of the manufacturing process or inherent in the materials they were made from. The most obvious example of this is brittle paper produced during the second half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. The quality of paper decreased during this time period because of the use of wood pulp, which led to shorter paper fibers and increased acidity of the paper that leads to damage over time.
External factors are ones that act on your collections from outside the materials themselves. These are ones you can control and improve; the most important of these are environmental factors. It is important to create the best environment possible, as this will have an impact on all of your family treasures, slowing the rate of deterioration from internal factors. Environmental factors also work together so if you are having an issue with one it can lead to problems with others. For example, too much sunlight coming into a space can raise the temperature; higher temperatures can then lower the relative humidity, which can cause larger photographs to roll up. So where we might only consider light in terms of fading collections it can intensify other factors damaging your materials.
- Temperature between 60-70 degrees F and stable
- Relative Humidity of 30-50% and stable
- Limit light as much as possible, especially natural light
- Air pollution - make sure filters on systems are changed regularly
- Monitor for mold and pests - Keeping areas clean will help prevent pest infestations (Please note: Exposure to mold can cause a number of health issues)
Since your family treasures are likely stored in your home, you will have storage areas and furniture that are already present. The paints, stains, and varnishes used inside homes can also off-gas chemicals, such as formaldehyde. If you are painting or staining wood or other surfaces, you should use low Volatile Organic Compound (low VOC) paints or polyurethanes. This is not only better for your collections but also for your own health. Choose furniture or spaces that are appropriate in size for the collections to be stored and provide good support for materials. Don’t store materials in traffic pattern areas where they can get bumped and damaged. Specialized furniture may be required to store maps, posters, architectural drawings, and other oversize paper materials.
Proper storage is greatly aided by protective enclosures, which can minimize light and dust damage to your collections and buffer them from contact with acidic materials like wood. They can also protect materials when moving them from one location to another. There are many high-quality, commercially available enclosures for the storage of materials. There are no standards or manufacturing specifications that a manufacturer needs to meet to use the term “archival,” so you should concentrate on terminology that does have specific requirements. Acid-free means that the material must have a pH of at least 7; anything below is acidic. You should also avoid storage materials that contain lignin, a substance in wood pulp that is acidic and turns dark when exposed to light.
There are materials that need specialized enclosures. For instance, some photographs should not be stored in buffered enclosures with a pH above 7. Three-dimensional objects will need boxes constructed for the size and weight of the item and may need a loose packing of acid-free/buffered paper placed around the object to help hold its shape or make sure it is not damaged by sliding around inside the box.
Over the years you may have accumulated family papers, photographs, and slim volumes, such as diaries or account books. Todd Pattison, Conservator at American Ancestors and New England Historic Genealogical Society explains what type of enclosures and considerations are needed to preserve your collections for generations to come.
Handling Family Treasures
Make sure to have clean hands and tuck in loose clothing, or jewelry, or anything else that can catch or damage materials or distract you during handling. Also, be prepared for an object that may have some weight or is fragile and needs special attention when handling. It’s important to know where you will place objects before picking them up--don’t hold the item with one hand while clearing space with another. Make sure there is a clear path between where you store collections and where you use them; open any doors or move anything that’s going to be in your way. Never place objects on the floor where you can trip over them and don’t try to carry too many things at one time. You want to inspect an object before you first pick it up to make sure you understand any special handling it may require. You don’t want to drop an object because it’s heavier than you thought and you didn’t ask for help. Remember, your family treasures are often at greatest risk when being handled.
Letters, documents, and other two-dimensional objects can be placed on a flat surface for viewing, but to prevent damage to bound volumes, use cradles to prevent opening them further than they can safely withstand. As you gently open a book, at some point you will notice when there is slight resistance – this is the farthest point that you can open the book without risking damage. Cradles should be used to make sure that the book doesn’t open beyond this resistance point. This opening can be different for every book and even for different page openings within the same volume. Do not force books to open flat unless they easily do so. There are commercially available foam cradles but as an alternative you can use rolled up clean towels or even soft pillows.
Old and rare books are amazing resources, but require you to take a few extra procedures before handling. Todd Pattison, Conservator at American Ancestors and New England Historic Genealogical Society discusses what you need to consider when handling an old volume and how to protect the book using materials you have at home.
Overtime your framed art, photographs, documents, and other two-dimensional items may be damaged (light, water, acidity, etc.), adhere to the glass, or slip away from their mounting. Todd Pattison demonstrates how to unframe your art safely.
Making multiple copies and distributing them widely is the best way to make sure that the information contained in your family treasures is not lost even if something happens to the originals. Reformatting also allows you to distribute material to multiple family members when there is only one original. You can use a photocopier, a scanner, digital photography; even a handwritten or word-processed file is better than no copy at all. Reformatting can also limit the need to handle originals, thereby possibly avoiding damage in the future. Remember that electronic surrogates can be simple to create and share but they rely on both hardware and software to be accessed, both of which change at a rapid pace, so they have their own preservation concerns.
When considering conservation treatment on your family treasures, you first need to figure out what you are attempting to do. Simply restoring an object to how it looked when first produced should not be the goal. Instead, you will want to think about the special connection between the object and your family or ancestors, and possibly preserving the evidence of your family’s use of the object. Your conservation treatment goals should be specific for each item, but they may include treatment to access the information the object contains, allow for handling and reformatting, or stabilizing objects to prevent further damage. There are some limited treatments that you can perform at home, such as dry cleaning using a soft brush, but most conservation treatment should be left to trained professionals who specialize in the types of objects you are looking to have treated.
Basic First Steps
- Move any family papers out of basements, attics, or garages
- Organize your materials
- Place your collections in proper storage enclosures
- Pay special attention to fragile objects
- Find out the current storage environment conditions – make adjustments if necessary
- When in doubt, talk to a conservator or a preservation specialist
Long, Jane S. and Richard W. Long, et al. Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
NEHGS Library, Vault, NK1127.5 .L66 2000
This book covers a wide range of materials that might be in family collections including paper objects, photograph albums, clothing, toys, and furniture.
Landrey, Gregory J., et al. The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection. Winterthur, Del.: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 2000.
Winterthur is home to a collection of nearly 90,000 objects made or used in America between 1640 and 1860. They share their knowledge and experience caring for collections in this publication.
Northeast Document Conservation Center Preservation Leaflets
Based on an earlier print-only version of Preservation of Library and Archival Materials, a Manual, this free collection of 55 leaflets covers everything on the preservation of paper-based materials, including Planning and Prioritizing, The Environment, Storage and Handling, Reformatting, and Conservation Procedures. Leaflets are available online or as downloadable PDFs.
NEDCC also maintains a 24/7 free disaster hotline at 1-855-245-8303 and answers preservation emails.
Minnesota Historical Society Preserve Your Family Treasures
The Minnesota Historical Society offers advice from curators and conservators on how to best preserve your family papers, photographs, metals, and textiles.
National Archives How to Preserve Family Archives(papers and photographs)
Quick advice on how to handle, store, display, digitize, and repair family papers and photographs.
American Institute for Conservation Finding a Conservator
The national membership organization for conservators and preservation specialists has an online search function for finding a conservator by area (based on zip code) and specialty (paper, painting, object, etc.).
Vendors for Storage Materials and Furniture
All of the vendors listed offer a wide range of storage materials, supplies, and, in some cases, storage furniture. Inclusion on this list is not an endorsement of any of their services. You should look closely at the specifications of individual products to make sure that they meet the requirements of your collections.
Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Information
Northeast Document Conservation Center maintains a 24/7 free Collections Emergency Hotline at 1-855-245-8303 for immediate phone advice.
Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration
After the Fire: Advice for Salvaging Damaged Family Treasures
After the Flood: Advice for Salvaging Damaged Family Treasures
Want to maximize your research? The experts at NEHGS can help! We offer a number of services that can help you break down brick walls and expand your research.
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