How to Preserve Your Family Memories, Letters and Trinkets

By Kelsey Mckinney

  • Feb. 8, 2018

Denise Levenick is her family’s historian. She’s not a professional archivist, but she’s a well-practiced one, running a blog called The Family Curator, and always trying to learn more. But even her family makes mistakes.

A few years ago, Ms. Levenick’s son lost almost everything of sentimental value to him when his washing machine blew out, a pipe burst and the plastic bin where he had put all of his old stamps and heirlooms for safe keeping became a pool of water where mold grew.

The accident, of course, couldn’t have been prevented. But the damage to his beloved records could have been mitigated had he been slightly more strategic with his storage strategy. A breathable archival box, instead of a plastic bin, could have prevented water from puddling, and keeping that box in the closet, where there are no exposed pipes and little humidity, could have saved those precious heirlooms. But people often don’t think about their family papers and keepsakes until it is too late.

Good archival practices might not be the most exciting of hobbies, but it could be the key to keeping your family history intact for future generations.

Recently, someone wrote to Mary Oey, a conservator at the Library of Congress, asking for help archiving her father’s personal papers. He was a Holocaust survivor, and he had used his diaries and papers as primary sources to teach schoolchildren about his experience. He had laminated them to keep them safe, and — Ms. Oey gave a mournful sigh as she told this story — lamination is a terrible way to preserve documents. There was no way to save this patron’s history.

“The only way to extricate paper from lamination is to use lots of solvents to dissolve the plastic,” Ms. Oey said. “Some stiffer laminations, we don’t know how to get off, and it doesn’t protect the document. The lamination itself can ruin a document beyond repair.”

Not only is the lamination process itself likely to harm delicate papers, it also places undue stress on objects that can cause them to tear, yellow or become brittle prematurely.

For items like papers and fragile documents, the best thing you can do is to control the environment they’re stored in, said Maureen Callahan, an archivist for the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.

“Water and vermin are the greatest enemies of paper,” Ms. Callahan said. “Folks also often store family records in basements or attics, where heat and humidity can fluctuate wildly and where water is more likely to enter.”

Your best bet? Ms. Oey said it’s a clean, dark space, like the top of a linen closet.

With items like printed photographs and albums, making things clean and neat will go a long way.

“Neatness for photographs is almost as important as storage,” Ms. Oey said. Very important photographs can be stored in high-quality paper folders (check to make sure they are acid free and lignin free) or in good plastic sleeves like Mylar. But an important caveat to remember: not using a sleeve is preferable to a cheap one that will scratch.

Every conservator who spoke to The Times recommended cardboard boxes over plastic bins for storage, because they don’t breed mold as easily and dry out quicker. But if you want to get fancy, the best option is to buy acid-free archival boxes, online or from vendors like the Container Store. They can be a bit pricey, but hold up best against moisture and mold.

And just as important as knowing what to do is knowing what not to do.

“All conservators would agree with me when I say we have seen miles and miles of terrible sticky tape,” Ms. Oey said.

So remember: No tape (it sticks). No paper clips or staples (they can rust). Definitely no lamination. And absolutely no plastic bins that can fill up with water.

Family archives can include all sorts of strange ephemera. Maybe your grandmother had an extensive record collection, or there’s a box of photo slides sitting in your garage that you have no idea what to do with.

Whatever the case, individual items like these don’t have any catchall rules besides common sense. But Ms. Oey encourages individuals with archiving goals they don’t know how to accomplish to seek out experts who are available.

Most major collecting services have resources on their website about preservation no matter what you’re trying to preserve. There are expert tips easily accessible for audio and visual materials, furniturepaintingshistorical silver, even individual digital film types.

Most libraries have an online reference system called Ask a Librarian that allows individuals to talk to preservationists who can advise them on how to best take care of the strange item, or point them toward an expert who can…

This article was sourced from NY Times.

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