Preservation Tips

This page provides tips for home preservation of personal and family documents.

Control the Environment

The single most important factor affecting the condition of paper-based documents is their environment:

  • Temperature – should be stable year-round at no higher than 70 degrees F. Seasonal fluctuations in temperature (extremes in attics and basements and near heaters and fireplaces) accelerate deterioration of paper, cloth, and leather.
  • Relative Humidity (RH) – should be stable year-round at about 50%. High moisture levels foster mold; low moisture levels promote brittleness.
  • Light – package and shelve materials to avoid direct sunlight and fluorescent light, which cause fading of inks and dyes and weaken other materials (incandescent/tungsten bulbs emit much less of the damaging ultraviolet light).

Package Properly

  • Dirt grains attract moisture, pollutants and mold spores, so clean documents before packaging. Use treated dust cloths and make careful motions from the middle of the page outward, to avoid crinkling. Also remove rubber bands as well as paper clips, pins, and other metal items that will inevitably rust and destroy the paper with which they come into contact. Use folders to organize papers and stainless steel clips or unbleached cotton ribbon ties if documents must be clasped together. Handle documents and photos with cotton gloves to avoid leaving oils. Clean hands are and increasingly acceptable alternative.
  • Use acid-free boxes and folders that are large enough to accommodate unfolded items (creases lead to tears). Office supply stores often carry acid free materials or can indicate where to obtain them.
  • Encapsulate important individual documents that will receive excessive handling by family members, or that are torn or in pieces. Encapsulation means sealing the item (although not completely blocking all air flow) between two clear sheets of inert polyester or Mylar film. Food grade or other non-archival plastic bags are not equivalent substitutes. Vinyls should be avoided.
    Frame photographs using acid free matting and conservation glass, which blocks UV light.
  • Interleave documents with acid-free paper (high quality Bond paper will do) where acid is bleeding from one document to another. For example, illustrations in books often bleed onto facing pages.

Repairs: First, Do No Harm

  • The cardinal rule of document repair is never do anything that can’t be undone.
  • Because scotch tape will crack off and leave adhesive residue to permanently mar the item, it miserably fails this test; do NOT use it.
  • Lamination uses heat and adhesives that damage documents; don’t use it.
  • Consult a professional conservator (see links below).

Special Considerations

  • Newspapers are the most acidic of all papers and deteriorate very quickly. Photocopy news clippings and preserve the photocopies, rather than trying to preserve the originals.
  • Identify photos on the back near the margins with a pencil or cartridge pen that will not indent the paper (never a ball point). Include the date, place, and identities of people whenever possible.
  • Never shelve a book with its spine upward; this places pressure on the hinges and causes the book to sag out of its binding.
  • Scrapbooks should be acid-free; use only photo corners to fix photos or documents to the pages instead of pasting them down. “Magnetic” photo albums should be avoided.
  • For large collections, organize materials into groups by category: personal correspondence, legal forms (such as deeds and wills), business documents (ledgers and bank statements), photos, newspapers, etc.

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