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Document and Photo Preservation FAQ
by Linda L. Beyea

The preservation and conservation of family documents and photographs is a topic which interests many who research genealogy. Not only do those sources often provide valuable research information, but most of us have documentsand photos that we know we should take proper care of, but we are not sure how.

In an effort to answer, "How do I?", I have compiled a list of some of the most frequently asked questions regarding preservation. A few of the questions and answers concern simple conservation procedures. Often when one has an item in need of treatment, the advice offered is take it to a conservator. However, in all honesty, the majority of the time the item is not worth the expense nor the effort of professional treatment, and there are some simple techniques that you can try at home.

PLEASE BE ADVISED that any treatments you perform on an item, you do at your own risk. DO NOT attempt to treat or repair a valuable or very fragile item; in that case, do seek the services of a professional conservator.

1. I have several old letters and certificates that I want to preserve. What can I do?

The key to preserving your paper documents is to keep them in an acid-free, humidity-controlled environment. Your paper documents need protection from a variety of elements which contribute to their deterioration--namely: light, heat, humidity, acids in papers, plastics, and adhesives, other objects, pollutants, and pests.

You can store and preserve your paper documents in a few different ways. You can organize and file your documents in acid-free folders, and keep them in an acid-free box. Or you could place your documents in archivally safe plastic sleeves and keep them in an album or binder. Another popular alternative is to encapsulate a document between two sheets of polyester film.

Regardless of how you choose to store your documents, NEVER STORE THEM IN AN ATTIC OR BASEMENT. Extreme temperature and humidity changes cause rapid deterioration. Store your items in a room that is comfortable to you, with stable temperature and humidity.

2. Can I store my documents in those plastic protector sheets that fit 3-ring binders?

Plastic enclosures are safe for documents ONLY if they are made of polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene. Other plastics are not chemically stable and will release damaging acids over time. Especially dangerous is PVC (polyvinylchloride) commonly found in store-bought” binders; it emits hydrochloric acid over time.

3. Is there any problem with putting more than one document in the same plastic sleeve?

No, but documents should be interleaved with acid-free paper to prevent acid migration from one doument to another. Acid-free paper that is buffered will also counteract the formation of more acids in the future.

4. Is it okay to laminate a document?

Lamination is not considered a safe conservation technique because the process may potentially damage a document due to high heat and pressure during application. Moreover, the laminating materials themselves may be chemically unstable and contribute even more to the deterioration of the document. Lamination also violates a cardinal rule of conservation, and that is to only apply treatments that do not alter the item and which can be reversed.

5. I have some old newspapers that I would like to preserve. What's the best way to do it?

Since newspapers are made of highly acidic paper and deteriorate so quickly, you should always photocopy the information you want from them onto acid-free paper. You can then store the original paper in an acid-free box, or mount clippings in an archival scrapbook. Clippings could also be stored in acid-free file folders, interleaved with acid-free paper. If you want to frame the clipping, you should frame the acid-free copy rather than the original clipping.

6. What about the ink used in copiers and printers? Is there an archival ink that can be used as an alternative?

The inks used in photocopiers and printers are moderately durable. To date there is no alternative ink available for use in a copier or printer. It is a good rule of thumb to photocopy any document you wish to preserve onto acid-free paper. If you then keep the original and copy away from light, heat, humidity, etc. the document should last for several generations. Incidentally, there are archival inks for use on paper: Pigma ink comes in a pen, and Actinic ink comes bottled for use with a quill pen or in an ink pad.

7. I have an old wedding certificate that has been stored rolled up for many years. It is quite brittle. How can I safely unroll and flatten it?

Often when paper objects have been stored rolled for many years, they become quite brittle. In order to safely unroll your certificate, moisture needs to be restored to the document (known as humidification). Placing your document in a humid environment for several hours should make it more flexible, allowing you to carefully unroll and flatten it. Watch out for ink on the document that migh bleed (don't humidify it if the ink will run). You may have to experiment with the level of humidity and the amount of time you leave the document exposed; monitor to make sure it does not get saturated. Attempt to carefully unroll the document while it is still humid; do not proceed if it resists or begins to crack or tear. You could then flatten it by placing the document between two pieces of blotting paper, and then place a heavy object on top for a few days.

8. I have a suitcase full of old family photographs. Some of them are fading, and I would really like to preserve them. Any suggestions?

The same rules which apply for the safe storage of paper documents generally apply to photos. Again, there are a number of options for preserving your photos. If you prefer an album, archival albums have acid-free components such as scrapbook style pages, picture-pocket pages made of one of the safe plastics, etc. Store-bought albums with "magnetic" pages are typically highly acidic and dangerous to photos. Besides albums, there are acid-free boxes made to accommodate between 500 and 1000 prints. These boxes come with acid-free envelopes and sleeves for negatives. Finally, photographs can be encapsulated in polyester film just like paper documents.

9. What is the best way to store negatives? Should color negatives be stored the same as black and white?

There are a variety of storage options available. The best choice depends on the number of negatives and one's preference. Negatives can be stored in acid-free envelopes--paper or plastic--and placed in an acid-free box made for negatives and prints. There are also clear plastic sheets which hold various size negatives which can then be put in a binder.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) recommends non-buffered storage for color prints and negatives, and buffered storage materials for black and white prints and negatives. Nitrate film should be stored in buffered materials.

10. My grandmother's photo collection was glued on that old black paper that photo albums were made of. How can I get the photos out of the album?

The safest and recommended approach is to carefully try to lift the photos off of the album page with a tool called a microspatula or a small spatula. Slip the microspatula under the edge of the photo, and carefully move it back and forth. The ease with which the photos come up may vary depending on the humidity level. Dry conditions may make prints and backing brittle, easier to lift. Or humid conditions may soften the adhesive and ease removal. Experiment with it, but DO NOT force the photos so that they tear.

If you cannot lift them, cut away the black paper around the photo. If photos are on both sides of the page and you cannot cut around, interleave the pages of the album with acid-free paper and store the album in an acid-free box.

The questions and answers in this article have been provided by MY TIME. We invite you to send us your preservation questions. We would also like to send you a FREE BROCHURE of preservation materials and books that we offer. For a free brochure, or if you have any questions contact: MY TIME, PO Box 8247, Warwick, RI 02888; (401) 941-1073

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