Preserving Family Documents

Even professional conservators with comfortable budgets find it challenging to preserve some historic documents. But taking a few simple and inexpensive precautions will go a long way toward saving your family’s important papers for the enjoyment of future generations.

  1. Store documents at room temperature or slightly below. Humidity between 45 and 55 percent is best. Store documents away from extreme heat and dampness, such as in basements, attics and against outside walls. If the temperature and humidity feels good to you, it’s probably good enough for your documents.
  2. Avoid displaying important documents for long periods of time in fluorescent light or in direct sunlight. Ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn in people also encourage the physical breakdown of paper and ink. Fluorescent light produces a bluer light than incandescent bulbs, and the blue end of the visible light spectrum is more damaging to documents. The best solution is to store important documents in the dark.
  3. Avoid folding and unfolding important documents. Folding weakens paper fibers. Ideally, large documents should be stored flat in acid free containers. Use care when unfolding or unrolling documents to avoid breaking or tearing them.
  4. Newspapers are inherently unstable because they contain unpurified wood pulp that causes discoloration and eventual disintegration. If newspapers or clippings are more important for the information they contain than as artifacts, photocopy them. The photocopies will outlive the newsprint. In any case, store newspaper separately from other less acidic documents.
  5. Do not use paper clips, staples, or rubber bands on important documents. Do not glue, tape or laminate them. Metal fasteners can rust. Rubber bands lose their elasticity and adhere to paper. Both glue and tape hasten paper deterioration. Glue is also a favored meal for various kinds of insects. Lamination may or may not be harmful to documents, but is almost always irreversible.