It’s no secret we’ve all been spending a lot of time in our homes lately. The time has afforded many people a chance to do some spring cleaning and in the process explore some of the old boxes tucked away in closets, under the bed, or in the garage. In some cases, those boxes contain family treasures we haven’t seen in years – letters, photographs, papers documenting important milestones, audio and video tapes, in short, the material records of our lives. Some of these objects bring smiles to our faces, while others can bring us to tears. While we have the boxes open, it’s a good time to consider what we can do to ensure that these important items are preserved for years to come.
The week of April 26 through May 2, 2020 has been designated Preservation Week by the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS), a division of the American Library Association. Preservation Week is a time when libraries, archives and museums across the country bring attention to issues of preservation and offer information and expertise on how to preserve papers, photographs, audiovisual materials, family records, textiles, artwork, and more. The ALCTS Preservation Week website contains great resources to learn about preservation, from free webinars and online video instruction, to informative pages on “saving your stuff” – everything from artifacts and LP records to books and digital files. There is a section on creating a family archive and tips for recording your family stories.
In Archives and Special Collections (ASC), preservation is an important part of what we do in our day-to-day work. We have a responsibility to ensure the millions of items in our collections are accessible not only today, but in 50 or 100 years and beyond. We do this by paying attention to some basic factors that affect the lifespan of most materials. Most of the guidelines we follow easily can be adapted to home environments.
The Storage Environment
The storage environment plays a huge role in the lifespan of all types of materials. It is best to store papers, photographs, films, tapes, textiles, etc. in an environment that is cool, dry and dark, as high temperatures, high humidity, and extensive exposure to light (particularly UV) are leading factors of deterioration in all kinds of materials. Drastic fluctuations in temperature and humidity also cause stresses to the physical structure of materials that lead to their breakdown. This means materials will last longer if they are stored inside your house, where temperatures are fairly constant year-round, rather than in a garage or storage shed. Most of us do not have a practical way to control the humidity in our homes, but we are fortunate to live in the arid Southwest where extended periods of high humidity are rare. Keeping things dark is as simple as storing them in a closed box in a closet or under the bed. In ASC, we do our best to keep storage temperatures at around 67 degrees, relative humidity between 35 and 45 percent, and we keep our lights off when they are not needed, with materials in closed boxes. Under these conditions, most types of materials will be preserved for a long time.
The boxes, folders, sleeves, etc. in which items are stored, their “micro-environment,” also plays an important role in long-term preservation. Most paper and cardboard products are produced from wood pulp and depending on the manufacturing process may contain lignin and harmful acids. These may cause the materials to become brittle, darken and break down over time. The acids in these paper products also can contaminate other items with which they come in contact. While we can’t change the composition of the materials we want to preserve (although “de-acidification” treatments do exist), we can ensure that the storage containers we use do not contribute to problems of deterioration. Acid-free and lignin-free boxes, folders, paper, sleeves, and the like are readily available through library and archives supply stores, such as Gaylord Archival, Hollinger/Metal Edge, University Products, and others. Other types of products, such as archival polyester sheets and sleeves, acid-free interleaving tissues and papers, and other specialty containers, can help provide a safe storage environment and increase the lifespan of materials. No matter the format of the original items, there is a preservation storage solution available.
As important as the storage environment is how items physically are stored. In general, letter and legal-sized papers should be stored unfolded and upright in folders and boxes. Over time, folding and unfolding papers to read them will result in the folds becoming weak and eventually breaking. Folders and boxes should not be over-filled or items can begin to deform. However, boxes need to be filled sufficiently to prevent folders and papers from slumping. Photographs, likewise, can be stored upright in folders and boxes. If possible, each photograph also should be housed within its own protective paper or archival polyester sleeve. Oversized items can be stored flat, unfolded and unrolled, in adequately sized boxes. These recommendations are by necessity very brief and general, as there are a multitude of special cases and circumstances.
Proper handling of materials also is important to ensure their long-term preservation. Materials that have been stored properly for years can meet a sudden, catastrophic fate if handled improperly. Start with clean hands as dirt and oils from our skin can damage materials and are particularly damaging to photographic materials. Best practice is to use nitrile gloves when handling photographs. Use an adequate workspace with plenty of open, flat surface and keep food and drink away from materials. Pay attention to handling materials carefully, support fragile items, and be sure to return them to their safe enclosures. Consider making paper or digital copies of materials to reduce handling of the originals.
The preservation of computer-generated information presents a whole new set of challenges of ever-increasing importance as we transition from a paper-based to a digital world. Many online resources offer recommendations for digital preservation. A good place to start is the Preservation Week web page Digital Preservation. So if you’ve uncovered some forgotten family treasures and have questions about how to preserve them so they will be around for years to come, feel free to contact ASC and we will be happy to assist.
Some useful online resources about preservation can be found at:
- British Library Preservation Guides
- Library of Congress Preservation Directorate
- National Archives and Records Administration – How to Preserve Family Archives (papers and photographs)
- National Park Service Conserve O Grams
- Northeast Document Conservation Center
- Smithsonian Institution Archives – Preservation