From community libraries to the personal photo albums and journals in your home, historical collections connect us to our past. These items, large or small, are representative of who we are as people, families, and communities. Many collections are an important part of our heritage. Preserving historical collections allows future generations to learn valuable facts about their family, culture, and community.
Future generations can use this history as a model of who we were and what we are now, which helps them prepare for the future. As you raise your children and foster your community, you probably already have these things in mind. Studying past successes and lessons learned will guide your descendants’ future decisions and what they pass on to the following generations.
As the world shifts to a narrower technological focus, your personal collections from the days before iCloud and Instagram can fall by the wayside. However, there are simple steps you can take now, before it’s too late, to preserve those family heirlooms and precious memories for the next generation.
Most families keep documents like letters, cards, paperwork, awards, and other personal effects stored in a file cabinet or another organized system that’s perfect for knowing exactly where something is when you need to access it. Not only will keeping paper documents properly stored extend their life for future generations to enjoy, but it also helps you keep your materials organized.
The temperature of your storage room should stay close to room temperature (68 to 70 °F) and the humidity should always remain as low as possible. This means attics, basements, and any other place in the home with a risk of temperature and moisture fluctuations are not the best choice for storing your personal collections. Consider flat storage instead of storing papers vertically, as in a file cabinet. Over time, pages can bend and wear from their own weight. Select acid-free boxes or folders to prevent damage to the paper over time, and avoid using paper clips, rubber bands, tape, staples, or any other fastening or “dog-earing” methods.
Handling paper documents as little as possible is essential to prolonging their lifespans. Paper deteriorates over time, so take great care to keep food, drink, dust, moisture, and mold away from where your documents are stored. Always wash hands (or use cotton gloves, if needed) to prevent oils and other contaminants from human hands that could damage the paper. Avoid exposure to direct light, or any type of lighting, for long periods of time. If you must make notes or other marking on the paper, choose pencil over ink.
Some of the paper documents in your collection may be bound, such as books, journals, notebooks, or scrapbooks. All of the paper preservation tips above also apply to bound paper materials, but there are a few more factors to consider.
Books and other bound paper collections are often stored on bookshelves rather than in a file cabinet or box. This is a fine alternative, so long as the room is kept clean and regularly dusted. Shelve books of similar size together so that the covers are supported by the books on either side. When removing a book from a shelf, grip it by both sides of the spine at the middle of the book rather than pulling it from the top, which wears down the binding adhesive over time. Always store shelved books vertically or flat, but never leaning on one another.
Understand that vertical storage trades ease of access for stress on bindings. As bound paper collections age, you may find it necessary to move them to flat storage or undergo re-binding by a conservator.
Like any paper document, the storage conditions of photographs are vital to their longevity. Light and moisture should be kept away, which is best achieved by acid-free paper or uncoated polyester enclosures made specifically for photograph storage.
Never touch a photo with your bare hands. Fingerprints and oils damage the delicate ink, as does writing on the surface (yes, even on the back!) as the ink can transfer and cause permanent harm. For photo albums and scrapbooks, follow the same guidelines as bound materials.
The only failsafe method of preserving your collections for future generations is digital preservation. This is especially important if you plan on displaying the materials, as hanging the original photos and documents can expose them to harsh light, moisture, and other damaging environmental factors. If you’re considering scanning and storing a digital collection from home, there are some guidelines to consider.
Many scanning, cloud storage, document cleanup, and metadata tagging techniques are available to ensure the digital copy of a collection is as accessible as possible to future generations. It might be wise to enlist the help of experienced digital preservation experts when undertaking a larger preservation project, if only for consultation or advice.
Never press papers into the scanning bed, which means you may have to dismantle bound materials instead of pushing them down to get the best image. Special care should be taken for photos, newspapers, prints, and any other delicate or brittle materials. Consider mending tears with archival tape before scanning. Once an original has been successfully scanned, replicas may be displayed, preserving the original. If you choose to display your collection in this way, use archival quality paper, which will extend the life of the replica and make display and storage much easier.
Timing is the key to preserving your personal history. Taking the right steps to preserve your important family and community collections now will prevent damage from unexpected disasters or the inevitability of time. You won’t be around to pass on your legacy forever, so preserving it now becomes an opportunity and gift future generations will cherish. Keep your history accessible to the generations to come.