A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Here are some simple archivist techniques to preserve family documents, photos

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By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

The history of Northern Kentucky is a rich one. Its highly textured mosaic of people, places and events spans centuries and has contributed to the development and growth of a region and a nation. Much of this history is to be found in area museums, archives and libraries. But it can also to be found as loose material in dusty attics, in the forgotten bottoms of old dresser drawers, hidden away in damp basements, or waiting to be discovered in some cobwebbed barn.

A typical example of how many people store old family documents and photographs. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler)

Television programs like Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots have fueled a growing preoccupation with genealogy and family history across the country. More and more, local residents in Northern Kentucky are discovering lost letters and collections of family records they never knew existed before.

Over the years, many people have asked me how best to preserve family papers for posterity. It’s not as complicated as one might think. Paper documents and photographs are the most vulnerable to the damaging effects of time, environment, improper handling and storage. It’s often the case that family documents are discovered or kept stored in cardboard boxes, file folders, three-ring binders, and plastic sleeves purchased at the local office supply store. But office supply-bought materials can sometimes do more damage than be protection. They generally have an acidic content, which can leech out into documents and cause stains, fading, and other kinds of deterioration and damage. Old cardboard boxes similarly have an acid content that can advance the yellowing of paper and damage photographic materials.

Two documents from the same family collection. The letter at right was written with an inferior ink that will continue to fade over time. (Courtesy of Mary Lee Schaffer.)

The good news is that there are some simple guidelines to follow and materials to use that are fairly inexpensive and available to everyone wishing to preserve old family documents. These guidelines and materials are used by institutions like The National Archives, Library of Congress, and by almost every museum and library archive in the country. So, you have your family records and documents in front of you, but how do you get started?

First, before handling any original document, wash your hands thoroughly and make sure they are clean of any lotion or hand sanitizer. Washing removes oils from skin surfaces that can transfer to paper fibers through one’s fingerprints. This rule also applies before handling any other antique artifact, such as an old Bible, artwork or textiles. For photographs and negatives, always handle with white, cotton gloves. Lastly, don’t eat or drink while working with original documents or photos.

The proper way to protect and conserve most paper documents. Acid-free L-Velopes protect fragile paper or photographic items within a protective polyester storage enclosure. (Photo by University Products, Inc.)

Second, digitize original documents and photographs. Digitizing creates a permanent record of a document or object and can allow originals to be shared with other family members. A few archivists I know also recommend making multiple copies of the digitized documents, one as a backup copy and the rest for distribution to family members. This ensures valuable records can be passed down along several family lines for the benefit of the generations who come after us. You can digitize the records yourself or have a company do it for you.

For those choosing to do their own digitizing, use a flatbed scanner; museum and university archives scan originals at 600 pixels per inch. Also, they scan in color. For one, color captures more image area information than greyscale; it also preserves the actual condition and color of the paper or photographic surface. For those who are expert in using Photoshop software, color further allows the use of filters that reveal details and information otherwise hidden in a greyscale scan. When scanning flat paper or photographs, ensure the original fits completely on the surface of the scanner platen glass. A scanner lid can crush or crease the overhanging parts of a paper document and damage it. Be sure to wash your hands before scanning.

Regarding photographs, it was a common practice in the early 20th century to glue photos into the pages of photo albums. Most album pages from that time were made of thick black paper. The black paper is very acidic and will stain photos or cause the images to fade and disappear. Consider removing photos from these albums, scan them and store in an archival quality storage medium. Photographs fade for other reasons, too. Exposure to light is a photograph’s worst enemy. Ultraviolet light causes photo images to discolor, fade and disappear over time. If original photos are framed and hung on a wall in a house, consider having them reframed using a UV filtering glass, and hang them in a darkened part of the house away from sunlight.

A page from a 1929 photo album. Acidic paper beneath the photos has stained the photo at left and caused the image area on the photo at right to almost disappear. Photos like these should be removed from the paper backing, scanned and put into acid-free storage. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

After scanning, save the digital scans as TIFF files (Tagged Image File Format). There are other digital formats that you can use, but TIFF format is considered by many to be the highest quality format in use, and it is the format most likely to be supported by changing technologies long into the future. The main disadvantage of TIFF files is that they are fully rendered images, meaning they take up a lot of space when stored on hard drives. If this is a big concern, JPEG format can be used. JPEGs save at a smaller file size, but they are a compressed format, which means some of the image quality is lost in the compression.

Digitizing old books, such as family Bibles should not be done on flatbed scanners. Bending back the covers of old books too far on a flatbed scanner can potentially tear the paper, crack the spine and destroy the binding. Instead, use book supports, wedges or a cradle so the binding is opened comfortably and without force. Books (such as family Bibles and large format printed matter) normally require a copy stand and are photographed using a digital camera. A Nikon or Canon 35mm camera available on the common market works. Again, wash hands or use gloves when handling old books.

After originals are digitized or photographed, they should be stored in acid-free media for permanent storage. Archival grade preservation tools and materials for almost any kind of document or artifact can be found online. The National Archives recommends four sources: Gaylord Brothers, Hollinger Metal Edge, University Products, and Exposures. Archival storage boxes are made of acid-free, reinforced cardboard and buffered with calcium carbonate to retard the effects of random acidity and atmospheric pollutants. Archival file folders are likewise made of acid-free and lignin-free stock that’s perfect for filing most kinds of documents and photos. Acid-free polyester sleeves are perhaps the best way to secure fragile paper originals, as they can be filed away in the boxes, in folders, or in acid-free 3-ring binders.

At left, slides and 8mm film kept in metal containers. At right, archival quality storage of the same materials. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

Once originals have been placed in the acid-free media, store them in low temperature and low humidity. The lower the temperature the longer documents will last, because even though they may be in acid-free folders and boxes, paper itself has characteristics that may cause it to deteriorate on its own. Cooler temperatures slow the rate of chemical decay and reduce possible insect activity. When storing originals, keep the temperature below 75 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity below 65% to prevent mold growth and reduce insect activity. Avoid extremely low relative humidity, because a humidity below 15% can cause paper to become brittle.

For acetate negatives, early 8mm movie film, color negatives and slides, consider putting them into cold storage. These media are vulnerable to fading and deterioration within only a few decades if only stored at room temperature. Although cold storage slows deterioration significantly, it requires special handling and packaging. More information on cold storage can be found at the National Park Service Cold Storage website.

These have been a few guidelines and techniques used by archivists that any local resident can use to preserve their own family papers and photographs for posterity. To learn more about archiving, go to The National Archives website. It contains comprehensive descriptions of how to preserve, repair, and store just about any historical artifact. There are also some good books that can help family historians, including Caring for Your Collections from the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, Caring for Your Family Treasures by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long, and Archives for the Lay Person by Northern Kentucky University archivist, Lois Hamill. Remember, the key to successful preservation is the use of stable, acid-free media and storage of material in a low temperature and low humidity environment.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010)

Common archival quality storage boxes. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

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