Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tips on Preserving your Family Archives

Do you have all your family photographs neatly arranged inside plastic sleeves in a beautiful album? Do you have them precisely labeled in their original photo print envelope with negatives?  Or do you have them stored in the carton you pulled out of your Grandmother's Attic?  If you thought one of these scenarios was the correct way to store your aging photographs, you may be in for a surprise!

At our May program, "Preserving your Family's Treasures" archivist Rena Schergen outlined the do's and don'ts of storing your family ephemera.  Here are some of her tips to make sure you keep those family photos around and looking great for your grandchildren.


You want to make sure you keep your family archives in a stable temperature environment. This means that attics, garages, and basements have too much heat/ moisture fluctuations and -if- they are insulated, climate controlled and de-humidified, that is when they are safe for your documents.

The ideal temperature for preservation is around normal room temperature; 65 to 70 degrees. Rena suggests that your home archives should ideally be located on your first floor, in a dark closet on a middle shelf.  When things are on the floor they are more susceptible to any pests, dust or water damage. 

Sunlight is your Number 1 enemy. The sun fades, warps, and disintegrates many of the materials our family archives are made from. Be sure to always keep your archives in a dark place to protect the vibrancy of your materials.

Cardboard is acidic and should NEVER be used to store your photographs.  It is not waterproof, leaving your archives open to damage in case of flood or bursting pipe or some other mayhem. Also, it is food for pests, and we assure you the last thing you want to see on Great Aunt Clarice's face is a friendly reminder that cardboard does not keep out mice.

Instead, Rena recommends using a plastic bin with a tight-fitting lid or a acid-free archival box.


Put it away, don't display. As we said earlier, sunlight is enemy #1. Make copies of your favorite photographs and put away the original to protect it for the future. 

Avoid putting photographs in albums. Even new albums claiming to be "archival" have been proven to have PH levels that would do the documents harm over a period of time. Sadly, most plastic sleeves are not recommended because over time, the plastic and the photograph will have a chemical reaction, damaging the photograph. Monitor your sleeve albums to make sure the photo has not started to stick to the plastic. Avoid and re-house your photographs in the ever-popular sticky page albums. The pages lose their stick and photos will come out. Also, the adhesive is not acid free.

Storing photographs in their original developing envelope is not a good idea either.  The paper is certainly not acid free, and that acid will leak all over your photographs as well as negatives.

So what should you do to store them?  Rena recommends what she and her fellow archivists do: Interleave and sleeve it!  What this means is taking a high-quality acid free paper like Bond paper, and using them as a protector for your documents. Then put those bond paper packs into an acid-free file folder to keep them organized.  For a tutorial and more information on this technique, see our video below.  Mylar sleeves are the top recommendation for documents that are fragile.


This is the way of the future. Many of you have probably already started this arduous process. But don't throw out the originals! With so many emerging technologies, one cannot be certain what the future will hold for us.  VHS and cassette tape quality goes sour after only 10 years.....So what is the best way to digitize your family archives?

First, get all cassette tapes, film strips, VHS, etc reformatted to a standard file format on a thumb drive. If you can, get second copies made onto DVD.  DVD is NOT a lasting technology; however, it is a great one to use for your second copy, the one you watch and share with others.  You can get video footage transferred by a local digital preservation company for a fee. Once you have your digital copy, you can easily transfer it to the next emerging technology. (Whatever that will be!)

Print copies of your digital photograph collection. Remember, one day soon enough those photos you took of the family last holiday will be old too. The file format your digital photo is in may not be readable for computers in the future. (This has already happened!) Keeping a printed back-up copy of your favorite shots is a smart way to protect yourself from the digital anarchy of the future or of an inevitable computer crash. Be sure you have a digital backup copy of your family archive on a separate hard drive than your computer.  This will ensure your photographs will live on- even if your computer hardware does not.

Protecting our family documents can be an arduous process.  With a little time and effort, we can take steps to ensure that future generations can enjoy the tangible pieces of history we have collected in our family record.

For upcoming CGS Programs visit:

For even more tips and tricks, check out our video!  Rena Schergen personally gives us the top tips to keeping our documents safe and sound for generations.

For more information on how to store your archives, visit these helpful websites.
National Archives - Preservation
Library of Congress - Family Preservation
Conservation Online

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