One thing every family seems to have is an abundance of papers. Stacks of paper can accumulate in basements, in desk drawers, and even on kitchen cupboards. Somewhere in the stacks of junk mail, kids’ school papers, and work assignments are often important family memorabilia. Besides your own family’s important papers, you might have collected family information from generations past. These papers could include everything from love letters sent between great-grandparents to original birth certificates or naturalization papers. The papers might have come to you in envelopes or file folders, rolled up with rubber bands around them, or stuffed inside an overflowing box. They might be in relatively good condition or already yellowing, fading, or even crumbling on the edges.
So what should you do with these papers to ensure that your children and their children after them can continue to enjoy them?
Preserving Your Papers
While no document, letter, or other family paper can last forever, they can last an awfully long time if they are properly cared for. Follow these guidelines for storing, handling, and displaying your important documents, and you can maximize the long-term health of your papers.
The first step in preserving your papers is to lay them flat. Unfold them, take them out of envelopes, and remove all rubber bands or paperclips. If the papers resist, proceed carefully instead of forcing. The LDS Church History Department’s video “Conservation” provides more help.
Next, choose archival-quality folders and boxes that are acid and lignin free for storage. Finally, pay attention to temperature. Although it might be tempting to keep papers out of the way in basements or garages, these often hot, humid locations are not the best locations for them. Cool temperatures (below 75 degrees) and low relative humidity (below 65 percent) slow decay and reduce the chances of mold and insects wreaking havoc on your papers. Temperature-regulated basements in dry states work fine as long as there is no risk of flooding.
The basic rule for how much to handle your documents or letters is simple: the less you handle them, the better. One way to minimize handling is to digitize the documents (as discussed below) so you can work with the digital copy instead of the original.
If you must handle the papers, wash and dry your hands first. For most papers, gloves aren’t necessary and can make working with them more difficult. Be sure to set papers on a clean, prepared space. Also, make sure you don’t drink or eat or allow smoke around valuable family papers.
Although it might sound appealing to hang an attractive, old family document on the wall, proceed with caution. Displaying comes with a cost. Most significantly, exposure to light, especially sunlight, causes documents to fade. Consider framing a copy and storing the original.
Mold, Bugs, and Water, Oh My!—Dealing with Special Circumstances
The points above work well if you have inherited papers in reasonably good condition. But what about papers that aren’t in good condition? What should you do with papers that smell, are brittle, have water damage, or, even worse, are mold or insect infested? (Yikes!)
For extreme situations, evaluate the value of the papers. As hard as it is for a genealogist to hear, it might be time to throw the papers away. Otherwise, you can hire a conservator. Check out the National Archives link below for more information.
Digitizing Your Documents
One of the best ways to preserve family history papers is to create digital copies of them. Digitizing documents provides a great backup plan in case of flood, fire, or other damage. It also allows you to handle the documents without damaging them.
Digitizing documents and letters also allows you to share them easily. You can email digital documents or attach them to an online family tree. One great way to attach digital documents to an online tree is through FamilySearch’s Family Tree. Upload documents in the Memories section, and store them in folders there or attach them to the relevant ancestors on your tree. Then relatives who may be interested will be able to find and view the documents as well.
Give these suggestions a try, and you can protect your family’s most important papers for generations to come.
For More Information
1. The National Archives, “How to Preserve Family Papers and Photographs”
2. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Department, Preserving History: Instructional Videos
3. American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, “Caring for Your Treasures”
Don’t foget to add everything to the Memories Gallery when you’re done!