Years of constant handling can take a toll on your family documents. Folding and unfolding letters can weaken paper where it is creased, causing tears and holes in the paper. Natural skin oils, perfume residues, lotions, jewelry and dirt on your hands can transfer onto the paper and images, chemically altering the substrate.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with nonperfumed, nondyed soap and water and dry them completely. Do not apply lotion or anything with a scent afterward and remove any jewelry, especially pieces with stones in them.
- When handling photos or negatives, handle only the edges of the object and wear polyethylene gloves. This will prevent the transfer of fingerprints and natural oils and acids from your skin onto the emulsion.
- Always support objects when moving them from one place to another. Use archival-grade paper, acid-free tissue, or card stock as a support. If the support is metal or wood, place a piece of archival paper or acid-free tissue between the object and the support. If the object was previously encapsulated or framed, leave the object in its support.
Exposure to visible and ultraviolet light can cause significant damage to documents, books, and images—even at low light levels, and especially over an extended period of time. Fading and discoloration of dyes, pigments, and inks as well as deterioration of materials the object is made of are but a few examples of the damage that can be caused by light exposure.
- Display paper and images out of the path of direct light. This can be sunlight or artificial light from a lamp source.
- Have UV-filtering film placed on your windows in rooms where your objects are being displayed. This can be purchased at your local hardware store; contractors can also help with the installation.
- Close blinds and curtains in rooms that are not being used during the day.
- If displaying pages of an open book, rotate the pages that are being displayed to reduce “preferential fading.”
Temperature and Relative Humidity
High temperatures and relative humidity levels can lead to mold growth, softening of gelatin emulsion on images and glues that hold books together, and increased insect activity. On the other hand, low humidities can reduce the amount of moisture in an object and result in brittleness and tears. Extreme fluctuations of both temperature and humidity can also cause stress to the object.
- Store and display paper-based objects and images in a consistently cool, dry place. Avoid storing them in basements and attics. Keep objects in the main part of your house, preferably not against an exterior wall. Avoid displaying your objects near windows, doors, and vents. These areas will have the greatest fluctuations in both temperature and humidity. Simply stated, the more barriers you place between your object and the environment, the better it will be. Do all you can to reduce the effect of environmental fluctuations on your objects.
- Routinely check objects in storage for damage and deterioration—look at both the object and its storage materials.
- If you find mold on an object, isolate it immediately from the rest of your collection to prevent the spread of the mold; then, call a conservator for advice.
Regular housekeeping will remove the majority of dust and debris in the air and most grazing insects from your home. Insects such as silverfish, beetles, and moths feed on paper and can cause considerable damage to your family collections if not checked.
- Monitor your storage areas and boxes for mold and insect activity on a regular basis.
- Check for damage to your objects. Look for tears, separating layers and lifting surfaces, and mold and insect damage. If any of these factors are observed, contact a conservator for further advice.
- It is not recommended that you remove dust and debris from your documents, books, and images without consulting a conservator first. Depending on the media used, you could cause irreversible damage by using improper cleaners and cleaning methods.
- If you have a photo or negative that needs to be cleaned, call a conservator. Do not clean the photo or negative yourself.
- To clean dusty documents that are in good condition, cover the end of a vacuum hose with netting—to prevent original fragments from being sucked into the vacuum—and place the object on a clean table. With the document well supported, use a clean and soft natural-haired brush to gently remove the dust by brushing towards the vacuum hose. Do not use a vacuum directly on an object.
When displaying family documents, books, and images, always be mindful of the display materials being used. Many older (or cheaper) display- and support-related products are made with wood pulp and paper and have acids in them that can affect the object being displayed. Always use archival-grade or acid-free materials around or against the object. These materials can be found through several sources, but contact the museum if you have trouble locating suppliers.
- Always use spacers and/or have an appropriate mat board between your object and a glass or acrylic front. Without this precaution, the media against the glass could soften and stick to the glass or acrylic in times of high humidity.
- Use UV-filtered glass or acrylic when framing a paper object or image. Frame shops may offer this service under the name of “museum glass” or archival glass.
- When displaying a book, especially if it is to be open while on display, make sure that you have an acrylic mount that is slightly bigger than the book and that the mount is angled to support the spine of the book without putting undue stress on the spine. If the book will not remain open on its own, secure the pages or binding with strips of thin Mylar that are joined with thinly cut double-stick tape. Do not force the book to open flat. This will only damage the spine and signature.
As with displaying your objects, storage materials should be of archival or acid-free materials.
- Separate letters from envelopes and store them separately from each other. By leaving a letter in an envelope, deterioration due to acidity can increase. Images in albums should also be removed and the album stored separately.
- When in storage, paper documents, books, and images should be encapsulated. This will allow you to handle the object without damaging it or introducing any oils or acids from your hands. Encapsulation will also help protect the object from environmental extremes. Another advantage to encapsulation is that, should the object begin deteriorating, or already be in poor condition, encapsulation will keep all the pieces in one place until a conservator can be consulted.
To find a conservator in your area, a great resource is the Find A Conservator tool that is offered by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Another part of the Resource Center on the AIC website to look at is Caring for Your Treasures. These are guides about how to take care of a variety of family heirlooms based on the materials they are made of. The guides are free of charge and can be downloaded and printed from the website.
Landrey, Gregory. The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection. Wilmington, DE: Winterthur Decorative Arts Series, 2000.
Long, Jane S., and Richard W. Long. Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation. New York, NY: Abrams Books, 2000.
Taylor, Maureen. Preserving Your Family Photographs. Westwood, MA: Picture Perfect Press, 2010.
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