Researching one’s family history can be an eye opening and invigorating journey of discovery; however, it can be daunting not knowing what to do with the documents and photographs you come across. While most documents will deteriorate at some point, there are ways that you can slow down the deterioration and preserve the memories of your family’s history for longer.
When handling the documents you intend to preserve, make sure you have a clean space prepared to place them on. Clean hands are important when handling paper, since bare hands (free of lotion) will not stain the paper if clean and gloves make it harder to handle paper that is already delicate. When handling photographs and negatives, however, it’s important to use gloves since fingerprints can leave permanent stains. It’s best not to eat, drink or smoke around the original copies of the document since these are all factors that could impact the preservation.
Unstable conditions can cause physical stress on records and can accelerate the deterioration of a document, so it is important to monitor and maintain storage conditions. Lower temperatures are best for preservation since they slow the rate of chemical decay and decrease insect activity. For a general storage area, aim to keep it around 20 degrees Celsius with relative humidity between 60 and 15 per cent (low relative humidity can cause brittleness).
It’s important to consider lighting when storing your documents. Materials naturally deteriorate faster when exposed to light, specifically UV light. For best practise when preserving your documents, choose a storage area where there are no windows, and keep introduced light (light switches, flashlights etc.) to a minimum.
Avoid storing your documents in areas that are at risk of water damage and/or insects and rodents. It’s best to stay clear from damp basements, garages and hot attics, where these conditions are most threatening. The National Archives of Australia recommends using properly cured powder-coated metal shelves to store paper records. It also suggests using cabinets for flat storage of documents such as maps and large artworks. During this process a label maker will be your best friend since you’ll need to label each storage box/folder to minimise handling.
There are a few different ways that documents can be packaged to keep them preserved longer. Materials that should be avoided when packaging (and storing) include synthetic glue (white glue), hot glue gun adhesive (or any other unknown glues), non-stainless-steel staples and paperclips, and unknown plastics or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics.
A popular way of packaging paper-based documents is with the method called ‘encapsulation’. Encapsulation is when you place a sheet of paper between two sheets of inert polyester plastic, specifically the brand of polyester called Mylar. The reason that encapsulation is great for packaging is because the electrostatic charge of the polyester keeps the document in place. If you were to touch the encapsulated document with dirty fingers or accidentally bend the document, the polyester will protect the actual document from these damages.
Albums are another great way to preserve photos, with a variety of binding styles that are safe – spiral, ring binders and sewn bindings to name a few. The important thing to look out for when considering an album is the quality of the album pages and materials that are in direct contact with the photos or paper you’re preserving. Another tip is to avoid overfilling albums since this can cause damage to the material and your documents.
There are many resources online to help you if you get lost, with video content as well to give you visible breakdowns of what you should do. Ultimately, have fun preserving your family’s history!