I inherited my grandparents’ marriage certificate / an ancestor’s property deed / my uncle’s army discharge papers. How should I preserve my family history documents to share and use in my genealogy research?
What do birth and marriage certificates, letters, and land deeds have in common? If you said “ink and paper,” you’d be right. Most old family documents are printed or handwritten on papers of different quality. Older paper made with high cotton fiber content may actually be in better condition than newer high-wood pulp paper. The basic steps to preserve and archive any kind of paper are similar, but you can help your old family documents survive longer by knowing what kind of paper was used.
Documents dealing with kinship (birth and marriage certificates) or property (wills, land deeds) were often printed or written on higher quality cotton fiber paper (rag paper). This type of paper is fairly strong and able to survive folding, creasing, and rolling.
In contrast, documents intended for temporary use such as receipts or daily news, or those produced during wartime shortages were often made with low-quality high-wood-pulp paper that deteriorates quickly due to high-acid content.
Most family collections include a mix of both kinds of paper, but unfortunately, high-acid content paper is so toxic that it hastens the deterioration of anything it touches. You may have seen the evidence of acid migration in a brown-stained Bible page from newspaper clippings used as bookmarks. Protect family documents by isolating newsprint from other items and following these preservation guidelines:
How to Preserve Old Family Documents
- Wash your hands to avoid transferring oils to paper and work on a clean, flat surface.
- Carefully unfold the document and remove any staples, pins or fasteners. If the paper seems brittle, allow it to gently relax as it absorbs moisture from the room. Do not press or force flat. Use a microspatula tool to gently fold back any creased corners.
- Place each item in an acid-free, lignin-free folder or archival plastic enclosure. I like to use crystal clear polyester sleeves so I can view the items and share with family members. Archival folders and heavy archival plastic sleeves help support fragile documents. Acid-free sheet protectors are suitable, but don’t are too flimsy to add support. All materials should be archival quality acid-free, lignin-free paper or plastics that have passed the Photographic Activity Test.
- Store folders or sleeves inside an acid-free archival box such as the Gaylord Document Case or flat drop front box. I’ve standardized boxes in my own home archive with 10 x 12-inch flat boxes and 5-inch wide upright document cases. This makes it easy to stack and store the boxes. The upright document case is like a mini-filing cabinet and keeps items from being flattened by the weight of stacked items, as well as provides protection from light and dust.
- Store boxes inside your home archive. Choose a location that is free from light, dust, and pests and has a consistent moderate temperature and humidity. An interior closet with shelves at least 12-inches off the floor is often a good place to create a home archive. Avoid storing your family papers or artifacts in the attic, garage, basement, or other areas that are not temperature-controlled.
When you’re ready to work with old family documents for your genealogy research, carefully remove the items from the enclosure to scan or photograph. Work from the digital image for transcribing and extracting family history information to minimize handling of your heirloom original.
Gaylord Archival offers an economical Family Archives Document Preservation Kit that includes acid-free folders, gloves (for working with old family photographs), a clipping envelope to isolate newspaper articles, and a letter-size document box. This is a good way to get started with museum-quality archival materials. The kit is available from Amazon.com or directly from Gaylord.com .
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