Family documents, books, and images are unique parts of our lives and are therefore considered highly valuable. Documents (such as letters, awards, certificates, and magazines), books (including bibles), and images (like posters, negatives, and photographs) can be made from a wide range of materials that are affected by such environmental factors as temperature, humidity, light, pests, and air pollution. Reducing the impact of these factors through safe handling, storage, and display practices will slow the rate of decay and help prevent damage to your objects.
The following information names some major causes of deterioration for documents, books, and images and recommends ways to preserve your family documents.
Years of constant handling can take a toll on your family documents. Folding and unfolding letters can weaken paper where it is creased, causing tears and holes in the paper. Natural skin oils, perfume residues, lotions, jewelry and dirt on your hands can transfer onto the paper and images, chemically altering the substrate.
Exposure to visible and ultraviolet light can cause significant damage to documents, books, and images—even at low light levels, and especially over an extended period of time. Fading and discoloration of dyes, pigments, and inks as well as deterioration of materials the object is made of are but a few examples of the damage that can be caused by light exposure.
Temperature and Relative Humidity
High temperatures and relative humidity levels can lead to mold growth, softening of gelatin emulsion on images and glues that hold books together, and increased insect activity. On the other hand, low humidities can reduce the amount of moisture in an object and result in brittleness and tears. Extreme fluctuations of both temperature and humidity can also cause stress to the object.
Regular housekeeping will remove the majority of dust and debris in the air and most grazing insects from your home. Insects such as silverfish, beetles, and moths feed on paper and can cause considerable damage to your family collections if not checked.
When displaying family documents, books, and images, always be mindful of the display materials being used. Many older (or cheaper) display- and support-related products are made with wood pulp and paper and have acids in them that can affect the object being displayed. Always use archival-grade or acid-free materials around or against the object. These materials can be found through several sources, but contact the museum if you have trouble locating suppliers.
As with displaying your objects, storage materials should be of archival or acid-free materials.
To find a conservator in your area, a great resource is the Find A Conservator tool that is offered by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC, www.conservation-us.org). On their website, look for the Resource Center menu, open it, and read “How to Choose A Conservator” and “Frequently Asked Questions”; you’ll then be ready to “Find a Conservator.”
Another part of the Resource Center on the AIC website is “Caring for Your Treasures.” These are guides about how to take care of a variety of family heirlooms based on the materials they are made of. The guides are free of charge and can be downloaded and printed from the website.
Landrey, Gregory. The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection. Wilmington, DE: Winterthur Decorative Arts Series, 2000.
Long, Jane S., and Richard W. Long. Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation. New York, NY: Abrams Books, 2000.
Taylor, Maureen. Preserving Your Family Photographs. Westwood, MA: Picture Perfect Press, 2010.
Archival Supply Stores
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