Family History Preservation: Preserving Your Family’s Letters and Documents

April 5, 2017  - by 
Preserving Letters and Documents

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.

storing old family documents
Storage

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.

Handling

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.

Displaying

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 old family documents
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

 

Family History Preservation: Preserving Photos
Family History Preservation: Preserving Your Family’s Letters and Documents
Family History Preservation: Preserving Electronic Information
Family History Preservation: Preserving Audiovisual Material
Family History Preservation: Preserving Scrapbooks, Family Bible and Other Books
Family History Preservation: Preserving Artifacts

Don’t foget to add everything to the Memories Gallery when you’re done!

 

Leslie Albrecht Huber

Leslie Albrecht Huber has written for dozens of magazines and journals on genealogy and other topics. She currently does communications consulting and contract work for nonprofit organizations. Leslie received a bachelor's degree in history from Brigham Young University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a professional genealogist, helpingothers trace their families, and has spoken on genealogy and history topics to groups across the United States.

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  1. As noted in a comment to the similar article on preserving photographs, and absolutely excellent instructional reference can be found on Amazon for around $6.00, in good used condition (no need to pay the absurd $40-60 prices from a handful of vendors selling them apparently as rare books – there are still several around for about $6.00, including ex-library books). The title is “An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs,” by Craig A. Tuttle. I heard rumors of a coming 2nd edition years ago, but haven’t ever seen a copy available. Regardless, the original 1995 edition is an exceptional value at the current prices (It was originally $12.95 retail). It gets technical, but not so much that the average person can’t follow it, and it is very detailed about what we can do to preserve papers, photos, slides, film, recording tape, even textiles.

    Hint: Get a copy, then take it to a good printing store, have them shave off the left (binding) edge of the book, punch along the left edge, and install comb binding. There’s sufficient margin on the pages that you can have your copy comb bound (or wire bound if you prefer), and be able to leave the book laying open as you read either for ease, or for reference. We’ve found this to be the single most helpful reference to have immediately available – very comprehensive yet easy to read.

      1. Thank YOU! (For both updating the original, and also for letting us know.) I’ve already downloaded the Kindle edition.

  2. COMMENT ON DIGITIZING: If anyone has an old scanner that still works, but has been made obsolete by operating system upgrades, your woes are unnecessary. We purchased a Nikon CoolScan V film and slide scanner a number of years ago, but the scanner would not work past Windows XP – we thought. Nikon quit making those scanners years ago, sadly (outstanding piece of equipment!). What we learned, however, is that a piece of software I purchased back in 2003 had already come to the rescue without us even knowing about it. VueScan is an outstanding scanning software program that’s been around for many more years than we’ve owned it. It will allow almost any scanner to be used regardless of operating system. According to their web site, “VueScan is compatible with 5629 scanners from 42 manufacturers on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.” And we can attest to the fact that our “old” and “outdated” Nikon film/slide scanner still works just fine again despite having moved on from Windows XP long ago. The complete list of compatible scanners is at:
    https://www.hamrick.com/vuescan/supported-scanners.html

    The creator of VueScan (Ed Hamrick) makes it available for a one time fee with lifetime upgrades thereafter if you purchase the Professional Edition (highly recommended). He is constantly upgrading not only compatibility, but also features. MANY of its features allow considerable control over the output, without having to even rely on photo editing software such as Photoshop in less-than-extreme cases. The “About” page on their web site details the interesting history behind the software.

    I recently acquired 180 Kodacolor family slides from 58-60 years ago that were badly faded with color changes. Using only the VueScan software and the Nikon film/slide scanner, I was able to do a rather surprising job of restoration without any other photo editing software. For further information, first look at the main features page for VueScan, and from there you can look at purchase options at the top menu line, or other related topics in more detail:
    https://www.hamrick.com/

    But the bottom line is – by all means, digitize! I’m in the process of digitizing hundreds of family photographs that have been given to me by two relatives, and will eventually get to my own collection of over 50 year old prints, slides, and negatives that I’ve taken over more than 55 years (the majority of which I’ve sadly neglected to digitize yet). It’s a daunting task, but with my ancient Epson Perfection 1650 flatbed scanner for prints, the Nikon scanner for 35mm film and slides, and VueScan, it’s do-able. And much of what’s being scanned is then being uploaded to FamilySearch to become my photographic family history. It’s already a hit with multiple family members with whom I’ve re-established old relationships. Since most of the people in my lineage are deceased, it’s easy for fairly close relatives (1st cousins, for example) to simply input themselves, perhaps one other common ancestor beyond that if still living, and then use the correct FamilySearch I.D. number for the first deceased ancestor we have in common. Suddenly they see themselves connected to a rather extensive lineage in some lines. Plus, they can immediately see everything I’ve uploaded so far in the way of photographs and documents (except living persons of course). I could die tomorrow, or our home could be blown away or burned up, and what’s already on FamilySearch would still exist for anyone to see.

    1. I absolutely love reserching my family tree and family history this was very informative thank you

  3. This article on preservation of papers is very good. However, what do you do with all of the preserved things if you not longer live at home or your children have no place or desire for them. Once they a, then what??

    1. LuJeane, I think at that point, it’s up to the discretion of the owner to determine what is the best thing to do with them.

      1. Regardless of what’s done with the records however, it would be a wonderful idea to scan and upload all the really important things to FamilySearch and attach them to the respective people to whom they relate, whether photos or documents. That way, no matter what happens to the originals (lost or destroyed), they’re still available to anyone through FamilySearch from that point on.