Some of the worst damage to our family photographs and documents occurs in the name of preservation. There are a lot more than four destructive habits that cause our family history treasures to deteriorate, but the ones listed here are commonly done by the most well-meaning genealogists.
There is no debate on what you should do before looking at photographs and documents. Wash your hands with soap and water then dry them completely. This removes the dirt and oils you could leave behind during handling. In some archives they make you wear cotton gloves and in others clean dry hands are enough. I prefer wearing gloves, because not only will protect your pictures from the naturally occurring oils present on your hands, but you wonâ€™t transfer surface grime from one photo or document to another. Try the white glove test with your pictures. You wonâ€™t believe how dirty documents and pictures get from hanging around for a hundred years! I always wash my gloves after wearing them.
If you donâ€™t know where to buy some inexpensive supplies search â€œwhite cotton glovesâ€ in an online search engine to locate vendors. I recently ordered a dozen for around $8.00. Thatâ€™s enough so that you can give a pair to all the photographers and genealogists in your family.
Poor Storage Areas
Probably the most common question Iâ€™m asked is where to store photographs and documents. The best place is often the hardest to findâ€”a windowless closet away from exterior walls and water pipes. I donâ€™t have one of those in my house, so I create a better environment by nesting one box of photographs in a larger box. The buffer created by the outside box helps prevent fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Many folks have written to me about their storage dilemmas. Itâ€™s difficult to locate just the right spot in your house that protects valuable family items from damaging heat, light, and humidity. Trust me. Basements, attics and garages make convenient storage places, but in the long-term youâ€™ll end up destroying the material youâ€™re trying to save.
Hereâ€™s a perfect present for the keeper of family materials. Buy them a selection of reinforced boxes made from acid- and lignin-free board from a company such as Hollinger Corporation.
Several times a year I receive a question about laminating photographs and important papers. This technique falls into the NEVER category of how to save family treasures. Lamination consists of poor quality plastics, adhesive and heat. This trio is toxic to anything you laminate, and it canâ€™t be reversed. Anything laminated slowly deteriorates due to the glue, the chemicals in the plastic, and the ingredients of the item youâ€™re trying to save.
Instead try encapsulation. This process uses two sheets of non-PVC plastic or mylar, a safe adhesive strip and no heat. You can order a kit with all the necessary supplies from Carr McLean
or buy items separately through companies like Light Impressions.
Unless you want your pictures and documents to end up in an estate sale you should take time to label them. Before you reach for a gel pen or other writing tool think about whether that utensil is light-fast, waterproof, and permanent. If you want to write on a heritage photo all you need is a soft lead pencil available in any art, craft, or office supply store. If however, youâ€™re trying to caption a picture with a plastic coating then youâ€™ll need something like a Zig marker also readily available at any of those outlets. Along with the cotton gloves, give the genealogist on your list one of each. Then offer to help them label all those family photos and documents. Just write on the back in the upper, left-hand corner.
For photographs, include the name of the person in the portrait, their life dates, and when the photo was taken. Donâ€™t worry that you donâ€™t have all the answers, put down what you know. On documents, include the name of the person who wrote it and when. Scrapbook hobbyists might want to compose an extended caption that actually tells the story of the item.
Think about the wonderful family history kit you can put togetherâ€”gloves, boxes, and writing utensils for that special person on your list. You can find additional information on preserving family history treasures on Sally Jacobâ€™s blog.
Maureen Taylor is the Photo Detective www.photodetective.com. Her work was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal.