How to preserve your own history
The fundamentals of preservation are accessible to everyone. And practicing them makes a difference! The tips in this section are meant to address the basic care of items common to many peopleÕs collections. With careful storage and handling, your own collection can survive for years to come. Every object - every photograph, every letter, every treasured item - has a story to share. We encourage you to preserve your history by preserving these stories
Books are treasured for many reasons. They may be first editions or rare finds that have monetary value. They may represent a special memory or interest for the collector. They may just be favorite books. Regardless, the proper storage and handling of books can go a long way towards extending their lives.
- Books need a temperate and stable storage environment that will not experience extremes in heat or humidity. A setting that is too dry or hot can cause pages to become brittle and yellow. Too much moisture can lead to mold and mildew. Allow good air circulation around books; do not place directly against walls, especially exterior walls that may conduct moisture. If using an enclosed cabinet, allow some space between the cabinet back and the wall.
- Keep the storage area clean and free of dust.
- Store books (except for oversize volumes) standing upright, not leaning, but do not pack shelves too tightly. Use books ends or blocks as needed. Shelve like-size books together. Oversized books can be laid flat on shelves but shouldn’t be stacked more than two or three high.
- Very fragile books can be stored in archival boxes or enclosures. Avoid wrapping or enclosing a book entirely in paper. Do not use rubber brands to tie up a book; these can cut into pages or deteriorate and mark the paper. Consult archival catalogs for appropriate storage options. Choose boxes as close to the size of the book as possible to minimize shifting. It is possible to get custom-made boxes from conservators as well.
- Remove inserts, such as bookmarks, paper scraps, paperclips, pressed flowers and mementos, before storing. They can damage the surrounding paper overtime through creasing and staining.
- Always handle books with clean hands. Lint-free cotton gloves can be worn if they don’t compromise the reader’s grip or affect page turning.
- Do not pull books from shelves by grabbing the “headcap” or top of the spine. Always remove books from shelves by grabbing both sides of the spine. To access the spine, push back the neighboring books slightly or gently rock the book forward with a finger extending across the top.
- Be careful of photocopying. Pressing a book flat against the copying machine can damage the spine. If copying an entire book, consider making two copies and retaining one as a master for future copying and for access. An access copy saves wear and tear on a popular book.
For more information on preserving your books, please visit the following web resources:
- Preservation: Care, Handling, and Storage of Books (The Library of Congress)
- Caring for your Treasures: Books (The American Institute for Conservation)
Documents and other Archival Materials
Archival materials in your collection may include letters and memos, official documents and certificates, diaries, financial registers, travel logs, flyers, or just about any other paper-based record.
- Choose a storage area with a stable temperate environment. Avoid keeping papers near water pipes or plumbing that could leak through walls or ceilings.
- Use acid-free folders and document boxes, available through archival supply catalogs, for housing paper documents. Always label folders and boxes in pencil, not pen.
- Do not laminate your documents; it is irreversible and will lead to eventual discoloration and deterioration of the item.
- Remove all papers clips, staples and pins from documents before storage to avoid rust damage to documents. Also remove rubber bands or string. To keep grouped documents together, use acid-free folders or place each group between two sheets of blank acid-free paper.
- If possible to do so without damage, unfold folded documents and store them that way. Remove letters from envelopes. Retain envelopes if they hold helpful information that is not captured in the document, such as dates, names, and addresses.
- Do not pack too many items per folder and folders per box. This can cause tearing or creasing. On the other hand, do not let folders flop around within boxes. If a box is half empty, use archival cardboard supports to hold folders upright and in place.
- Separate newspaper clippings and other high acid items from other documents. The acid can migrate to surrounding paper and aggravate deterioration. Consider photocopying newspaper clippings onto acid-free paper and discarding the original. If original clippings must be retained, deacidification sprays are available through archival supply catalogs; however, results vary and the treatment is not practical for large-scale collections.
- Always wear lint-free cotton gloves or use clean dry hands when handling documents.
- Do not eat, drink, smoke, or use a pen or marker when working with documents.
- Take notes on a separate piece of paper. Don’t mark up documents directly. Be careful not to place note-taking paper on top of archival documents. The pressure from your handwriting may damage or imprint the paper below.
- If there are multiple documents in a folder, take care to keep the original order within the folder. If a box has multiple folders, work with just one folder at a time to avoid accidentally mixing documents from different files.
For more information on preserving your archival materials, please visit the following web resources:
- Guide to Collections Care: Paper, Photographs, Textiles & Books [Section 1: Archival Storage of Paper] (Gaylord Brothers) [PDF]
- Caring for your Artifacts: The Care and Preservation of Archival Materials (The Henry Ford)
- Protect Photos, Documents And Other Papers From Natural Destruction Over Time (Scraobook.com)
Film and Videotape
Since the advent of home movie equipment, families have been documenting their lives through moving images. Taking special care of film and videotape can preserve our “moving memories” for generations to come.
- Keep film and videotapes in the coolest driest environment available. Avoid direct sunlight. A room that is too warm or humid can cause fungus infestation and accelerate deterioration. Many professional film storage vaults maintain a temperature of 45 degrees F with relative humidity at 25%.
- Original metal film cans and reels can become rusty or warped causing damage to the film. Store film in archival plastic or archival metal cans and switch from metal reels to plastic cores. Store film cans flat to avoid warping and stretching.
- Replace paper videotape cases with archival plastic containers for more protection. Store video cassettes on end, like books. Storing video cassettes flat can cause distortion and warping. Storing them on their long side can cause stretching and damage to the carriage.
- Identify and label the location, date, event, and people in your films and videos. Write this information on acid-free paper and keeping it with the film or videotape.
- For videotapes that will be played often, make an access copy for viewing and keep the master copy in safe storage.
- Avoid projecting your home movies repeatedly. Film projectors can be very harsh on film, causing tears, edge damage, burnt frames, and dirt build-up. Consider making video or DVD access copies of favorite films.
- Always handle film and videotape in a clean environment. Don’t unwind film loosely on the table or floor; it can become tangled and damaged. Use rewind shafts or a viewer instead.
- In the right storage environment, film can last for many years if it is not projected or handled often. Video cassettes have a shorter life span even with proper handling. In either case, it is wise to check into available transfer technologies that can increase the accessibility and lifetime of moving image media.
For more information on preserving your films and videotapes, please visit the following web resources:
- Caring for your Treasures: Home Videotape (The American Institute for Conservation)
- The Home Film Preservation Guide (Sponsored by the Association of Moving Image Archivists)
- Preservation: Care, Handling, and Storage of Motion Picture Film (The Library of Congress)
Different types of paintings may have different needs. Here are some general tips. For advice specific to oil, acrylic, and watercolor works, please see the resources below.
Storage and Display
- The storage environment should be temperate and stable, ideally between 65 and 75 degrees F and 40 to 50% humidity. Canvas and wood framing may expand and contract in reaction to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, causing warping or cracking.
- Exposure to direct sunlight or bright interior lights can cause paintings to fade or become brittle. Display areas should have dim or diffused lighting, such as filtered indirect sunlight or recessed lighting.
- Avoid hanging paintings near other potential sources of dirt or contaminants such as fireplaces, eating areas, air vents, bathrooms, or high traffic areas.
- Remove paintings from walls and protect them when painting, plastering, steam cleaning or fumigating nearby.
- Only move one painting at a time. Grasp it by both vertical sides, not by the top of the frame or by the hanging wire. If necessary, ask another person to help. Remove all jewelry that could potentially scrape or rub the painting’s surface.
- When storing or moving paintings, never stack them horizontally. If they must be leaned against one another, always place them face to face and back to back so painted surfaces don’t get damaged by the hanging hardware. Use stiff boards to protect the painting side if necessary.
- The surface of a painting can be dusted infrequently (every 4 to 6 months) using a soft bristle brush such as sable or badger hair brush or a soft Japanese white bristle brush. Do not use liquid cleaners, dust cloths or feather dusters (which can scratch the surface). Always check for flaking or loose paint before cleaning and do not dust if any is found. Consult a conservator.
- Before attempting any repairs to a painting, including its canvas, consult a conservator for advice first. Wrong cleaning or patching techniques can damage a painting irrevocably.
For more information on preserving your paintings, please visit the following web resources:
- Caring for your Artifacts: The Care and Preservation of Oil Paintings (The Henry Ford)
- Care of Acrylic Paintings | El cuidado de las pinturas acrílicas (The Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education)
- Caring for Your Treasures: Documents and Art on Paper [PDF]
The following general tips apply to both photographs and negatives. Different types of film and prints have different preservation needs. For more material-specific information, please consult the resources listed below.
- Photographs can be harmed by exposure to dampness, fluctuations in temperature, and insects. Store photographs in a stable cool dry environment. Keep the area free of dust and food to discourage insects and rodents.
- Exposure to light can accelerate the deterioration of images. Consider making copies of original photographs for display.
- For storing photos, look for paper enclosures that are acid-free and lignin-free or plastic enclosures made of archival quality polyethylene and polypropylene or preservation grade polyester (Mylar). Do not use enclosures made from vinyl (including PVC) or plastics treated with plasticizers which may deteriorate and damage their holdings.
- When creating photo albums, never use sticky or “magnetic” photo pages. They can permanently damage photos. Look for albums with acid-free paper or archival polypropylene sleeves (available through archival supply catalogs). Do not use tape or glue to adhere photos to pages. Use archival quality corner mounts instead.
- For older albums and scrapbooks that you would like to keep intact, try interleaving pieces of acid-free paper between each of the pages to protect the photo surface from contact with potentially acidic surfaces. Store albums and scrapbooks flat and consider using well-fitted boxes or binding with archival string to prevent shifting which can damage or tear pages and loosen bindings.
- Remember that a large part of the value of photos is dependent on identification. You can label photos on the back; however, avoid ballpoint or felt tip pen. On photographs with unfinished paper, write softly with a pencil near the edges to avoid any show-through imprints on the center of the photo. On resin-coated photos, use an archival film-marking pen. Allow the ink to dry completely before stacking photos to avoid ink smears on image surfaces. Negatives can be labeled in the margins using an archival film-marking pen as well. Consider numbering photographs and negatives to coordinate with further information recorded on a sheet of acid-free paper.
- Do not throw out old photos after scanning them. Treat digital copies as an archival back-up, not a replacement for the original. Remember that digital images are dependent upon the proper hardware and software for access. Keep up to date on developments and changes in technology and how that may impact your digital collections.
- The natural oils from our skin, present even on clean hands, can be damaging to photographs and negatives. Whenever possible, wear lint-free cotton gloves when handling them. If gloves are not available, make sure hands are clean and lotion-free. Hold photos and negatives by the edges and avoid touching the image surface with fingers when pointing.
- For photographs that will be handled often, say at a family reunion or other event, consider making an access copy to pass around so that the original can be stored away safely.
Damage and repair
- Broken, torn, or cracked photos: place them carefully in polyester or Mylar sleeves. Use acid-free cardboard for support if necessary. Do not use glue or tape for repairs; consult a photographic conservator instead.
- Soiled photographs or negatives: brush soiled photos with a clean soft brush. Start from the center and move out towards the edges. Do not use liquid clears.
- Adhered photographs: consult a conservator. Attempting removal of a stuck photo from the surface it is adhered to may cause irreversible damage.
- Deteriorating negatives may omit a vinegar smell and show signs of cracking, bubbling or warping. Isolate deteriorating negatives from those that are more stable since a bad negative can escalate the deterioration process for surrounding negatives. Consider scanning or making copies of negatives that have begun deteriorating; once the process has started, it is irreversible, and though it can be slowed down through appropriate cold storage, it can’t be stopped.
For more information on preserving your photographs and negatives, please visit the following web resources:
- Guide to Collections Care: Paper, Photographs, Textiles & Books [Section 2: Archival Storage of Photographs] (Gaylord Brothers) [PDF]
- Caring for your Artifacts: The Care and Preservation of Photographic Prints (The Henry Ford)
- What Do You Want to Preserve?: Photographic Materials (The National Archives and Records Administration - NARA)
- Caring for your Treasures: Photographs (The American Institute for Conservation)
Some kinds of textiles that you may find in your family’s collections include dresses, blankets, fabric decorations, ceremonial garments, kimonos, knit items, and uniforms.
- Textiles will deteriorate more quickly when exposed to direct light and high temperatures, particularly natural fibers such as wool, cotton, linen, and silk. Store textiles in a cool dark environment that maintains a relative humidity of 40 to 60%. Conditions that are too dry can make textiles brittle. Conditions that are too moist can lead to mold and mildew.
- Ideally, textiles should be stored flat in acid-free boxes with appropriate lining material such as tissue. Lining tissue depends on the nature of the fabric. Silk and wool should only be stored with unbuffered tissue. Other textiles such as cotton and rayon can be stored with either buffered or unbuffered tissue. When in doubt, choose unbuffered. Flat textiles can also be rolled on to Mylar wrapped tubing. For more details, please consult the resources listed below.
- If it is absolutely necessary, to store textiles on hangars, use padded hangers, never wire. Never keep clothing in plastic dry cleaning bags; they emit gases that can damage textiles over time. If hanging on an open rack, create a cloth curtain to keep dust off of textiles.
- Do not store textiles in direct contact with unsealed wood such as in a cedar trunk. While cedar may discourage moths, it also gives off acidic emissions that are harmful to textiles. If it is necessary to use wooden storage furniture, make sure to line all exposed surfaces with an archival barrier such as Mylar.
- Make sure hands are clean and free of lotion when handling textiles. Remove any jewelry that may snag or rip fabric.
- Do not smoke, eat, drink, or use pens or markers when handling textiles.
- Provide proper support for textiles when handling. For example, for fragile items, use flat archival cardboard boards for support when moving.
- Insect infestation: insects can wreak havoc on textiles. To discourage insect infestation, keep storage areas free of dirt and debris. Monitor the area regularly for insects. If an infestation is found in your textile collection, consult with a conservator on how to proceed. Do not expose textiles directly to bug sprays or bombs or other poisons and cleaners.
For more information on preserving your textiles, please visit the following web resources:
- Guide to Collections Care: Paper, Photographs, Textiles & Books [Section 3: Archival Storage of Textiles] (Gaylord Brothers) [PDF]
- Caring for your Treasures: Textiles (The American Institute for Conservation)
- Taking Care Textile Guidelines [including "Geography and Textile Storage"](Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education)
The objects we keep to document our histories come in all shapes and sizes. Look for preservation guidelines that take into consideration the materials specific to your treasured item.
For information on preserving other items, please visit the following websites:
- Caring for your Treasures: Furniture (The American Institute for Conservation)
- Caring for your Artifacts: the Care and Preservation of Historical Iron (The Henry Ford)
- Caring for your Artifacts: the Care and Preservation of Historical Silver (The Henry Ford)
- Caring for your Artifacts: The Care and Preservation of Glass and Ceramics (The Henry Ford)