When it comes the restoration, conservation and preservation of historic documents, maps, photographs and other treasured records, there’s a lot more to it than storing items in a cardboard box in the attic for safekeeping.
In fact, if you’re storing these items in a cardboard box in the attic, you should probably take them out. Right now. Go. Most people aren’t aware that documents and photographs need a humidity controlled environment or that a cheap cardboard box can cause more damage than it prevents.
The old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies when it comes to proper handling and storage.
Whether it’s a cherished handwritten letter from a relative who passed on, or a manuscript by Thomas Jefferson, these kinds of documents tell the story of our past. Great care should be taken in preserving them for future generations.
Your paper documents and photos need protection from elements – ight, heat, humidity, acids in papers, plastics, and adhesives, chemicals and pests – which all contribute to their deterioration
Because the Worthington collection includes dozens of historic documents autographed or written by past presidents, sports heroes, and famous celebrities, we’re sometimes asked how we preserve and keep these records safe.
To provide some insight, we’ve compiled a list of guidelines from The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and Library of Congress that will help extend the life of your valuable records.
Starting points for handling documents
- Always wash hands prior to handling documents and avoid using lotion or hand cream
- Do not lick your fingers when turning the pages of a document
- Avoid leaning on or touching the document
- Use a paper marker to follow the text
- Use cotton gloves when handling photographs and hold photographs by the edges
- Keep documents in the order they have been received
- Do not eat or drink around documents, records, or photographs
- Documents can’t be dragged across other documents or against surfaces
While working with documents
- Make sure the document is fully supported
- Make sure you are not holding the documents while reading them
- Make sure they do not hang off the edge of table while reading
- Always turn the pages with care
- Do not put items on top of the documents
- If writing on document, always use a soft lead pencil
Early records like treaties, charters and wills were recorded on parchment and are especially vulnerable to careless handling, according to experts at the The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. These documents may be bound volumes, paper with wax seals, or large rolls made from several sheets of parchment sewn end to end. Parchment is made of animal skin, so it doesn’t absorb ink in the same way paper does.
- Avoid touching the document
- Use weights to hold parchment in place.
- If a pendant wax seal is attached to the document, ensure that the seal is supported
- When turning the document over, be sure to turn the seal at the same time
- Staple or paperclip documents. The metal can leave rust marks. Use a plastic paper clip
- Use Scotch tape to repair brittle documents. Always use archival tape
- Use post-it notes on documents
- Use rubber bands on documents. Rubber bands will discolor the paper and cause tears.
- Laminate documents. This is irreversible and will ultimately ruin the paper
- Store documents and newspapers together. Newspapers can be highly acidic and cause damage
- The National Archives uses wedges to support books so little to no pressure is on the spine of the book
- Always use a paper marker to follow the text when reading
- Carefully turn pages
Maps and large documents
- Large scale documents can be stored flat, rolled, or folded
- Always make sure there is enough space to lay out the large document before beginning to open it
- Avoid touching the document
- Use an archival quality paper tube for rolled documents
- Up to five documents may be rolled together and stored in one tube
- Skin gives off an acidic gas which can damage photographs, slides, and negatives. Handle with gloves
- Handle carefully when removing from boxes, folders, sleeves, envelopes and other containers
- Make sure to have a clean space to lay photographs on
- Do not eat, drink or smoke around photographs and negatives
- Acetate and color negatives, slides, and prints are vulnerable to fading and deterioration if stored at room temperature. Cold storage can slow deterioration, but requires special packaging
- Store items at a low temperature and low relative humidity
- Cooler temperatures slow the rate of chemical decay and reduce insect activity
- Keep temperatures below 75 degrees Fahrenheit
- Keep relative humidity below 65 percent to prevent mold growth and reduce insect activity
- Avoid very low relative humidity because relative humidity below 15% can cause brittleness
- Reduce risk of damage from water, insects, and rodents by not storing in damp basements, garages, or attics
- Keep items away from sources of leaks and floods, such as pipes, windows, or known roof leaks
- Store items away from foot and water which are attractive to insects and rodents
- Small groups of folders, sleeves, or documents may be stacked as long there’s no risk of falling
- Unlike sizes may not be stacked
- Use containers big enough originals to lay flat or upright without folding or bending
- Use containers that are the right size so that items won’t shift.
- Do not overstuff the box
- Acid-free and lignin-free archival boxes are best
Storing documents that are brittle, worn, or torn
- Use a polyester sleeve for small, brittle documents
- Plastic enclosures are safe for documents only if they are made of polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene. Other plastics are not chemically stable and will release damaging acids over time. Especially dangerous is PVC (polyvinylchloride) commonly found in “store bought” binders; it emits hydrochloric acid over time.
- Only place one item in a sleeve and make sure all parts of the text or images are visible
- Keep the item in the sleeve at all times
- Use sleeves larger than the original document, any part extending outside the sleeve is likely to be damaged
- Do not use sleeves in books, the sharp edges of the polyester will tear the book page
- Use soft brushes to dust documents
- Always dust from the center of the document, outwards
- Light sources that generate ultraviolet light cannot be used – it must be filtered light
- All equipment surfaces must be clean and dry before being used with documents/records
- Don’t use aerosols or ammonia solutions where documents are placed. Use a 50/50 water and isopropyl solution
It may seem like like a long list, but taking these extra steps to is incredibly important. Follow these guidelines and it will preserve your historical documents, photographs and precious memories for generations to come. The professionals at Worthington Galleries are always available to answer your questions. Call us at 615-527-7970 or visit our website for a complete list of turn-key and a la cart services.