Friday, July 21, 2006

Basic Steps to Preserve Your Family Document

By Chris Gordon, Professional Archivist (The Erickson Tribune)

Properly preserving family photographs and documents does not have to be expensive or complicated.

The Basics

The basics of document preservation are easy to follow. Keep your papers in a stable environment, store them in the right containers, handle them carefully, and never, ever laminate anything!

Finding old documents in the attic or packed away in the basement is exciting. Keeping them in that same environment after the discovery is hazardous.

Temperature extremes, molds and mildews, and pests are some very common destroyers of documents. Damp conditions grow mold that, depending on the species of fungi, can do everything from simply soiling your documents to completely eating them away. The mold can also be a potential health hazard. Taking documents out of any room where high humidity is a problem is crucial.

By keeping the documents in a place such as a closet or cabinet on the ground floor of your home usually means that it will be surrounded by stable temperatures. A temperature range of 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit is most suitable for home storage.

Humidity levels can be difficult to maintain in the home, but central air and heating will typically keep most humidity levels consistent. It is also important to remember that just as damp air can hurt documents so can excessively dry air. Paper becomes brittle in dry conditions and crumbling documents often cannot be repaired.

Never store any documents where there is a potential for pest infestation. Countless historical documents have been lost to mice and insects that have literally eaten away history that has been store in attics, basements, barns, and sheds.

If you find that you have a pest problem, remove your items immediately. Place the items temporarily in plastic garbage bags and tie them tight. This will restrict air and keep anything that is alive and hiding in your papers from escaping and spreading to new areas.

After a few days take the items out of the bags and place them in clean, archival storage containers.

The Delicate Nature of Paper

Since about the time of the Civil War, paper has been produced primarily out of wood pulp. The problem with wood pulp paper is that it contains high levels of acid. This acid occurs naturally and remains in the paper throughout its life.

As the paper ages, the acid degrades the paper. This decaying process is most evident in newsprint and is visible in the browning or yellowing that occurs over time. The acid can migrate from one document to another, thereby damaging surrounding documents.

Allowing a document to breathe will prolong its life since acidic gases can be expelled harmlessly. This is one reason should never laminate a document. The lamination process traps destructive gases in the document while acid in the adhesive accelerates the decaying process. Once the document is laminated, its life is shortened and there is no easy way to reverse the lamination process.

A safer way to protect documents is by encapsulating them in a safe, inert plastic called Mylar. Papers can be easily placed in Mylar sleeves without the threat of damage.

Handle With Care

Finally, it is always important to remember to handle your documents carefully. Remove any kind of staples or paper clips if you are easily able to do so without tearing or otherwise damaging your document.

Always wash your hands before handling items since naturally occurring body oil and food grease can cause irreversible damage such as stains. Lastly, never eat or drink around your papers.

Keeping personal archive or family documents and papers can be your lasting contribution to history. Preserving them properly is the best way to ensure that they will be read by your descendants.

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