Preserving your family papers – a practical approach to preservation

Town Clerks deeds in new archival boxes

Example of the types of boxes we use to store archives  at AH&P

Many of you have read about our preparations for the move and the careful packaging of thousands and thousands of items. Whilst contributing to the wrapping of the book stock in Archives and Heritage, I often wondered about where these items had come from – how had they made their way into our collections and where had they been kept before. Inevitably some items were more in need of attention than others but it occurred to us that there are untold numbers of collections in private, community and business hands that, if looked after properly now, would hopefully find their way to an archives such as ours, in a good condition sometime in the future.

Archives are not just paper documents; they can be made of parchment, be photographs, maps, plans, bound in volumes, loose in a drawer. If you think something is important enough to be kept long-term, it’s best to start looking after it now. Although each circumstance is different and each location where archives are stored will have its own unique conditions, we thought it might help to give a few basic pointers – things to be aware of when storing personal papers. We will be looking at photographs specifically in a few weeks’ time, but there are some simple steps that can be taken to help protect archives, and some things that should be avoided!

Choosing a storage location

  • Avoid storing items in attics, garages and basements as they can be damp and are prone to leaks, flooding, mould, pests and extremes of temperature.  If these areas must be used ensure all shelving is at least 15cm from the floor and keep items away from exterior walls.
  • Avoid storage near to vehicles, aerosols, paints and varnishes, windows and exterior doors, as chemical fumes and everyday air pollution can accelerate deterioration.
  •  Keep items away from heat sources, electrical equipment and magnetic fields as these accelerate damage and aging. 
  •  A clean, dark environment with a fairly constant temperature and humidity, such as an above ground cupboard in the centre of your home, is ideal for storage.
  •  Block out direct sunlight and switch off any lights when not in use.
  • Keep all pets, food and drink away from items.

 Handling and storage basics

  • Avoid directly handling fragile items where possible.  Ensure hands are clean and only hold photographs, negatives, artworks and films at the edges (ideally cotton, vinyl or nitrile gloves should be worn).
  • Try to keep items on a flat surface for support.  Place a rolled up towel on either side of a book’s spine to help support the structure when open.
  • Do not force curled/folded items or stiff books to open as this will cause damage.
  •  Avoid using elastic bands as they may perish or stick to items causing staining.
  • Avoid the use of metal pins and paperclips as they can rust and tear items.
  • Never use adhesive tapes to repair items as they can cause staining and adhere to other things.
  • Avoid storing photographs in plastic ‘magnetic’ albums with adhesive surfaces.  Photo corners or ‘pocket’ albums are preferred. Also avoid contact between facing images.
  • Store different types of materials (photographs, negatives, paper documents, objects, textiles etc) separately, keeping a note of items which belong together.
  • Keep newspaper clippings away from all other items you wish to preserve and use acid-free tissue paper rather than newspaper to wrap items for protection. (Newspaper is very poor quality, acidic paper which can harm other items).
  • Avoid the use of plastic and PVC wallets, plastic/bin bags or cling film for storage as these yellow and become sticky with age, often lifting the ink from documents.  Also avoid wooden storage boxes and drawers as they can contain chemicals which can transfer.
  • Try to store items flat and unfolded where possible.
  • Avoid marking items with ink (which fades and can bleed if damp). If necessary, write lightly with a HB pencil on the reverse.

Materials for packaging and display

High quality boxes and card folders are an ideal protective enclosure for most items and provide protection against damage, light, dust and rapid changes of temperature and relative humidity.  High quality paper enclosures are preferred for photographs and artwork.  Polyester sleeves give support to fragile documents.  All enclosures should be well fitting and never overfilled.  They should be made of stable permanent quality materials that will not contribute to the document’s deterioration.  These are available from specialist suppliers and do not include dyes or damaging chemicals (see details below).

An item that I think is often overlooked when it comes to correct storage is books. Books can be kept on shelves but strong light should be avoided and they should be dusted regularly with a soft brush.  Store books upright or spine downwards to avoid damage. Large, fragile or heavy volumes are best stored flat, and stacked no more than 3 high.  Do not overfill shelves but ensure books are supported by neighbouring volumes of similar size or bookends so that they do not lean or slump.

To avoid damaging books when removing them from shelves, grip them at the centre of the spine rather than the top.  Do not push books to the back of the shelf, leave a gap behind them to allow ventilation and enable books to be pushed out from behind if they are packed too tightly.

Although the Preservation Advisory Centre will be closing at the end of March, there is still useful guidance available on their website. For instance they offer a free selected list of suppliers and PDF documents about caring for your collections. 

Although aimed at library staff, with more and more archives being deposited having been in private hands, this is a good starting point and may even encourage readers to think about starting their own archive.

Thank you to our Conservation Team for providing this really useful guidance and happy collecting (and preserving)!

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One response to “Preserving your family papers – a practical approach to preservation

  1. Pingback: Preserving your family papers – a practical approach to the preservation of photographs | The Iron Room

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