How to Preserve Your Family Memories, Letters and Trinkets
Denise Levenick is her family’s historian. She’s not a professionalarchivist, but she’s a well-practiced one, running a blog called TheFamily Curator, and always trying to learn more. But even her familymakes mistakes.
A few years ago, Ms. Levenick’s son lost almost everything ofsentimental value to him when his washing machine blew out, a pipeburst and the plastic bin where he had put all of his old stamps andheirlooms for safe keeping became a pool of water where mold grew.
The accident, of course, couldn’t have been prevented. But the damageto his beloved records could have been mitigated had he been slightlymore strategic with his storage strategy. A breathable archival box,instead of a plastic bin, could have prevented water from puddling, andkeeping that box in the closet, where there are no exposed pipes andlittle humidity, could have saved those precious heirlooms. But peopleoften don’t think about their family papers and keepsakes until it is toolate.
Good archival practices might not be the most exciting of hobbies, but itcould be the key to keeping your family history intact for futuregenerations.
Storing love letters, photographs and otherimportant papers
Recently, someone wrote to Mary Oey, a conservator at the Library ofCongress, asking for help archiving her father’s personal papers. He wasa Holocaust survivor, and he had used his diaries and papers as primarysources to teach schoolchildren about his experience. He had laminatedthem to keep them safe, and — Ms. Oey gave a mournful sigh as she toldthis story — lamination is a terrible way to preserve documents. Therewas no way to save this patron’s history.
Continuereadingthemainsto “The only way to extricate paper from lamination is to use lots ofsolvents to dissolve the plastic,” Ms. Oey said. “Some stifferlaminations, we don’t know how to get off, and it doesn’t protect thedocument. 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, yellowor become brittle prematurely.
For items like papers and fragile documents, the best thing you cando is to control the environment they’re stored in, said MaureenCallahan, an archivist for the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.
“Water and vermin are the greatest enemies of paper,” Ms. Callahansaid. “Folks also often store family records in basements or attics, whereheat and humidity can fluctuate wildly and where water is more likelyto enter.”
Your best bet? Ms. Oey said it’s a clean, dark space, like the top of alinen closet.
With items like printed photographs and albums, making thingsclean and neat will go a long way.
“Neatness for photographs is almost as important as storage,” Ms. Oeysaid. Very important photographs can be stored in high-quality paperfolders (check to make sure they are acid free and lignin free) or in goodplastic sleeves like Mylar. But an important caveat to remember: notusing a sleeve is preferable to a cheap one that will scratch.
Every conservator who spoke to The Times recommended cardboardboxes over plastic bins for storage, because they don’t breed mold aseasily and dry out quicker. But if you want to get fancy, the best optionis to buy acid-free archival boxes, online or from vendors like theContainer Store. They can be a bit pricey, but hold up best againstmoisture 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 milesand miles of terrible sticky tape,” Ms. Oey said.
So remember: No tape (it sticks). No paper clips or staples (they canrust). Definitely no lamination. And absolutely no plastic bins that canfill up with water.
Other strange heirlooms (wedding dresses,record collections and more)
Family archives can include all sorts of strange ephemera. Maybe yourgrandmother had an extensive record collection, or there’s a box ofphoto slides sitting in your garage that you have no idea what to dowith.
Whatever the case, individual items like these don’t have any catchallrules besides common sense. But Ms. Oey encourages individuals witharchiving goals they don’t know how to accomplish to seek outexperts who are available.