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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley

Storing Your Family Treasures for Preservation

Over the past several weeks on Facebook I have been chronicling my progress in organizing my grandparents' collection of family photographs and papers. For readers' convenience those posts are compiled below.

Day 1: For those of you with boxes or closets of family photos and documents that you don't know how to handle, I've decided to start a series of posts featuring my own project. I acquired my father's family archives about three years ago. Since that time we've moved into another house and those particular boxes are still unpacked, tucked into various corners of our home where they are a daily reminder of yet another incomplete project. I've decided the time to do something about it is now. My goal is to have everything rehoused and identified in the next three weeks (but don't hold me to that!). So here is the "before" picture.

Day 2: I've gathered my supplies. Among them are acid-free reinforced storage cartons, acid-free folders, and 2 mil polyethylene print envelopes in various sizes. I order supplies from Gaylord Archival.

Day 3: So what was wrong with the way I've been storing my family documents? Just about everything. Have you ever kept a newspaper for more than three months and seen it turn yellow? How about a cheap paperback book that is so brittle it's falling apart? That happens because the acid in the paper is reacting to exposure to light as well as fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Cheap paper practically self-destructs in a relatively short time. But even high quality paper needs ideal storage conditions to survive for any length of time. Too much light; air that is too moist or too dry; high temperatures; pests that eat paper; and contaminates like staples, tape, glue, or binder clips all decrease the shelf-life of paper. Paper that is folded will weaken and tear along the crease more easily as well. Stay tuned to learn more about how to mitigate these problems.

Day 4: Yesterday I really got to work and now I have things scattered everywhere. This is a case where things get worse before they get better. But the great part of this stage is deciding what isn't worth keeping. Take a look at these pictures with a few of my thoughts on each category.

Old pictures frames – Don't save old pictures frames for a variety of reasons. They are made from materials that may damage the picture. Or age may have damaged the frame to the point where it is unattractive and possibly falling apart. Frames are bulky and take up too much storage space too.

Unrelated items – Find a new home for items not related to your family history. Grandpa saved these because they were of interest to him, but that doesn't necessarily make them important to our family history. Most items in this category can be discarded. For a few, you made decide to find a new home somewhere where these items have more meaning.

Duplicate copies – Frequently keeping duplicate copies is unnecessary. In this case I'm keeping both copies of this yearbook because Grandma and Grandpa had different friends write personal notes to each of them. But if one of these yearbooks was not personalized, I wouldn't be keeping it. Consider spreading duplicate photographs, documents, and so on around the family if others are interested in them. Otherwise consider sharing with a library, archive or museum...or discarding the duplicates.

Original newspaper clippings – Don't keep original newspaper clippings. They aren't going to last long anyway. The information they contain is more valuable than the paper itself. So make a photocopy to save (I also scan a copy to share with family members) and discard the original paper. I recommend both hardcopy and digital files for longevity. They each have their preservation issues, so doing both is better than one or the other. But if you can only do one, keep the photocopy. Quality paper can be preserved for a long time. Digital files will require more work keeping up with technology, migrating to new file formats, and making sure your heirs know where to find the digital files.

Day 5: At this point I'm deep into identifying photographs, which involves studying each picture for contextual clues (location, clothing, hairstyles, and anything else included in the picture), reading any notes that accompany them, contacting other family members to learn what they might know about people in the photographs, and comparing labeled photographs with unlabeled photographs. While I'm doing this I'm also removing contaminates and rehousing the photographs and documents in 2 mil polyethylene print envelopes and acid-free folders labeled in pencil. Take a look at these photographs for more details.

Here is a perfect example of several contaminates that need to be removed. The damage caused by rusty paperclip is obvious. Staples and straight pins are just as bad. Remove all metal carefully. When removing staples use a spatula-style staple remover rather than a tweezer-style. The photo folder is likely not only made from cheap acid-paper or cardboard, it is also bulky to store and in this case falling apart. But before you remove the photograph and destroy the folder, make sure you preserve any notes on it, like a person's name and the photographer's name. Also inspect how well attached the photograph is to the folder. Some slide right out. Others may be securely glued in and actually can't be removed without damaging the photograph even worse. In that case, keep the folder.

In the case of this photograph, it was attached to the photo folder with tape. I can't remove the tape from the picture, but I didn't mind ripping the photo folder because I'm not keeping it. I did trim the tape flush with the edge of the photograph. Never us tape on archival documents and photographs. And remove any tape you can do safely.

Here is what my finished folder looks like. Note I've labeled it in pencil. The photos are in their 2 mil polyethylene print envelopes. And yes, I will put several similar photographs in a sleeve to save money. Just use good judgement on what you put together. I usually don't mix media types as they may damage each other. For example, tintypes often have sharp or bent edges that will scratch the images on other photographs and documents. They are always put in their won sleeves. In other folders with textual documents, any folded papers have been unfolded and smoothed for flat storage.

There are many reasons to remove frames. Frames are very bulky to store. They may be falling apart. Broken glass can damage the image on a photograph. The paper or cardboard back filler is likely highly acidic and damaging the photograph. If you choose to keep a frame because you like it, make sure it is in good repair and definitely replace the back filler with something photo-safe.

This one has been hard for me. These are two of my grandmother's diplomas. They are folded in half and tied into these interesting keepsake folders. The vellum covering on the very outside is brittle and crumbling into flakes every time I touch it. The suede-like covers are also likely to leave "dust" behind. And storing paper folded weakens it along the fold line making it subject to tearing. So I know I have to dismantle these folders to save the diplomas. Only the paper contents will be saved and put in 2 mil polyethylene print envelopes.

Black paper is the worst offender of all because so many times people glued their photographs to the pages. Fortunately my grandmother did not and I'll be able to dismantle this album, again preserving any notes she wrote in it. If you have an album that cannot be disassembled, then interleave the pages with a single piece of acid-free paper as I've demonstrated here. For small albums trim the paper to fit the pages. Then place the entire album in its own acid-free folder.

Day 6: So the contaminates are removed, the photos are rehoused in acid-free 2 mil polyethylene print envelopes, documents and photos are placed in folders, and the folders are placed in boxes. The folders are labeled in pencil. Letter-sized or smaller items are filed on edge parallel to the short side of the storage cartons. Items larger than letter (up to legal size) are filed on edge parallel to the long side of the cartons. Now where do I keep these boxes?

Not all locations are the same. The most important considerations are temperature, humidity, exposure to light, accessibility to animal pests, and space. I know garages and attics are so tempting, but they are rarely climate controlled. You are looking for a space that is dark and maintains consistent temperature and humidity year-round (50% relative humidity is perfect), preferably cool, but definitely never above 78 degrees fahrenheit. A closet on a lower floor in an air conditioned house or a basement that is dry, clean, and preferably finished may be your best options. If kept in a basement, put your boxes on shelving at least 4 inches off the floor in case of a minor flooding incident. Then plan to open and briefly inspect the contents a couple of times a year to make sure there are no changes to the documents, particularly checking for an infestation of paper-eating bugs or rodents that will need to be addressed.

Day 7: We've spent all of this time and labor to preserve our family photographs and documents, and we found a carefully selected spot in the house to safely store them. What now? Are they just going to set in the dark never too be looked at again? I hope not. The point of preserving family photographs, documents, and other memorabilia is exactly that. They are a tangible expression of family memory and are meant to tell a story. We keep the originals for their emotional value. To touch something your ancestor touched provides a physical connection to past generations. So how will you share your family's story? Here are a few things I do:

Scan photographs and put them on a family website to share with all the members of my family. On the website, each photograph is accompanied with information about it including subject, date, location, photographer, current owner of the original, and any other notes I think important. Sometimes I don't know all of this information. I just include as much as I do know, estimate dates, and hope family members who know more will contact me. Then I update the information.

I also make photo gifts (I'm a regular Shutterfly customer). These have included books with family stories and recipes illustrated with photographs. One year I also made greeting cards using some of the best and most interesting family pictures and then gave these to family members as a set of stationary.

As my regular readers know, I also use photographs to illustrate my blog.

There are so many creative ways to use family photographs and documents. Make sure you are using them to tell your family story.

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