Tips for preserving family papers

Courtesy of the National Archives

Genealogical research is possible because people preserved their family papers and photographs, allowing us to use them ten, twenty, even hundreds of years later to piece together their lives. Preservation of these items can seem a daunting task, filled with pitfalls, expensive materials, and hours and hours of time. However, it doesn’t have to feel so tough, and here are some basic tips to get started!

The first thing about preserving your family history is to think about where you are storing the materials. It can be hard to find a good location to keep them within your house. The best place is different in each home, but a few general guidelines to keep in mind would be: not to store your documents in the attic or the basement because both of these locations are prone to large temperature swings, humidity, and sometimes flooding. That is why it is best to keep them at least 6 inches off the ground, as well, in case of flooding and creatures. Generally, a closet in your main living area without a heating or cooling vent is the best option.

Once you have found where to store them, it is time to think about what to store them in. There is a lot of advice available about what kinds of boxes, folders, sleeves, and whatnot to use. It can be confusing and expensive to buy materials and end up not using them. It is best just to use acid-free folders and boxes. You want the material to be acid-free because when an acidic product comes into contact with paper, photos, textiles, or similar items, the acid can migrate, causing permanent damage and decay. With acid-free folders and boxes, you can help to keep your materials in better condition longer. It is important to get boxes that fit the original size of your papers without bending or folding them.

You want the material to be acid-free because when an acidic product comes into contact with paper, photos, textiles, or similar items, the acid can migrate, causing permanent damage and decay.

These boxes also help to keep your family memories out of direct sunlight. In the case of papers and photographs, UV rays from the sun and lighting can damage, fade, and otherwise destroy your documents. For example, if you have ever seen the Declaration of Independence (see photo above), you will notice how hard it is to read the original document now. The document shows signs of sunlight exposure and water damage. The case it lives in now is climate-controlled with special lighting and reflective glass to keep it safe from further harm.

If you want to display your family documents or photos by framing them, you want to be sure that you have properly mounted them and keep the photo or document from making direct contact with the glass. Also using reflective glass to ensure the safety and preservation of your document. (There is more to it, but that is another topic, for another time.)

Finally, it is time to think about how you plan to organize your family papers and photographs. This can be the most time-consuming part of the process and feel the most difficult. Don’t let it scare you! You can organize your family papers anyway you want, and that is totally awesome. This allows you to make it easier to find documents later. The best tip to keep in mind is to keep like materials together and separate some different materials. This means separating newspaper clippings from documents from photographs. Not to say they need to be in entirely separate boxes, just in different folders.

I hope these tips help you to feel better about starting to preserve your family papers. Good luck and keep preserving!

About Rebecca Carpenter

Rebecca Carpenter earned her BA in History from Fitchburg State University and her MA in History from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Before joining NEHGS, she worked for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Dedham Historical Society & Library, where she found a love for genealogical research. In her off time she enjoys trying out new breweries, reading history books, and exploring.

6 thoughts on “Tips for preserving family papers

  1. Very helpful. I wish you had addressed the proper storage of individual items, though. For instance can I (or should I) put a single page document in a plastic sleeve? If so, what sort of plastic?

    1. Hi Valerie, yes, as mentioned below you can use any archival plastic sleeve. However, generally I recommend just placing items in folders. Plastic sleeves can cause condensation to occur inside the sleeve if they get too humid in their storage location.

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