Preserving Family Records, Do No Harm! 4

Genealogists are always asking me about preserving their family records, photographs, ephemera and other artifacts. As an archivist who works on records preservation at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives, this is very near and dear to my heart.

First and foremost, we don’t want to do anything to our records that can’t be undone. This is the first rule of records preservation and one that every archive follows. As the “home archivist”, genealogists should think about what they are doing to their records and if it can be undone.

For instance, it is highly frowned upon to laminate our records and photographs. Decades ago, when lamination first came on the scene, it was seen as the ultimate preservation process. Seems everything was getting laminated, even historical records at the state and national level. Today, archives and conservation studios are de-laminating what they can to keep the damage from going any further than what has occurred. We know now that laminating is very damaging to records and photographs and I would discourage every genealogist from laminating their records.

To protect photographs, photographic negatives and important papers from water and other forms of damage, store them in sleeves made of archival-safe plastic, such as polyethylene or polypropylene, and then placing those in a file folder that is kept in an environment that cool, dark and dry. It is important to store your records in a temperature and humidity controlled area, such as a closet.

Between every photo place a sheet of archival tissue paper or archival copy paper. This helps if they happen to get wet or did happen to encounter moisture somewhere along the way. Storing photos in frames can be a problem. Over time the4se photos could actually get stuck to the glass or the sun can wash the photos out to where the images can’t even been seen any longer. It is recommended that original photos be photocopied and those copies be displayed on your walls and shelves and put the originals away safely.

If you have scrapbooks in your records collections, they need to be preserved as well. It is important to digitize the entire scrapbook so that it is digitally preserved in case something happens to the original. Then place the scrapbook in an archival box that fits the scrapbook. If it is moving around in the box, crumple up archival tissue paper and tuck around the scrapbook to keep it still in the box. I also suggest putting archival tissue paper between the pages of the scrapbook just in case moisture finds its way into the box and the pages will not stick together.

If you have newspaper clippings, they are very acidic and will damage any documents they touch. They usually leave a yellow stain on adjoining documents which is very damaging. Place newspaper clippings in archival sleeves so they are not touching other documents. Another option would be to photocopy and digitize the newspaper clippings and throwing away the originals. Whether you keep newspaper clippings or not is entirely up to you, just don’t let them touch other documents.

Acid is what causes paper to yellow and becomes brittle and damaged. This is why it is very important to purchase archival and lignin free materials when preserving your genealogical records. Some of the more well known archival materials stores are listed below. Be sure to request a FREE catalog from each store so you can sit in the comfort or your own home and choose the items you need. Also, be sure to sign up for their free emails so you can get the latest discounts and sales.

Preserving our family records is an important part of being genealogists and passing our history on to the next generation.

Archival Materials Stores


About Melissa Barker

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Manager for the Houston County, TN. Archives. She also lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. She writes her own blog and has written articles for several publications. She is affectionately known as The Archive Lady. She is also a Professional genealogist that works with clients researching their Tennessee ancestors.

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4 thoughts on “Preserving Family Records, Do No Harm!

  • Harold McClendon Jr

    I remember attending a lecture by Tom Jones where he was asked about preserving the records we collect. He suggested that you should write a book using the records. His thinking was that books have been with us for a very long time and they will survive digital images. While you will have a difficult time including images of all of your records, the information will be preserved and with good sourcing others will be able to locate the original records.
    On a different note, my wife has a cookbook prepared by her mother that has hundreds of handwritten recipes. While the cookbook is still in use by my wife, the idea of storage that you mentioned in your blog sounds like a good suggestion. I was thinking of scanning the book and then putting the images together in a book. This way I could add additional information from a table of contents to information about her mother and the individual recipes. What do you think of this idea? She could then share the book with her brothers, nieces and nephews. Could you suggest any software that might be useful for this type of project?

  • LuJeane Maxwell

    You speak of digitizing items and then storing originals properly. Good enough. Except what are we supposed to do with all the many boxes/books etc. after that? Children and grandchildren are not going to want to find places for them. And as we grow older and downsize our belongings we don’t have room for places to put them either. Would appreciate your suggestions. I have written and compiled several family histories and have the original documents that I have referred to. Still don’t know what to do with all the “stuff”. Could you reply to my e-mail since I may never find this site again.