The Basics of Archival Document Storage, by George G. Morgan

Many people are unsure about how to store the documents they have collected in the course of their genealogical quest. There are a number of considerations in selecting the right storage containers, binders, file folders, and the like. You also have to be aware that anything published on newsprint can spell disaster to documents stored in close proximity to it.

Most of the genealogical items you compile are paper-based materials. These include originals of letters, vital records, land and property records, books, diaries, journals, forms, and other documents. They also include photocopies you make when you visit libraries, archives, and courthouses. In order to ensure the longevity of these papers, you need to know about and recognize their natural enemies.

Original documents may or may not have been produced using archival-safe paper. Some paper products are manufactured using acids or chemicals which degrade or destroy the paper over time. Newsprint is a prime example of high-acid paper. It has been used in newspapers, telephone directories, and other short-term publications. Other materials it comes in contact with can discolor and/or decompose over time. If this paper comes in contact with other paper documents–even through the air–the other documents become “infected” and begin to discolor. Newsprint should be stored separately from other documents. An excellent solution is to make a photocopy of newsprint items and store the copy instead of the original. However, even photocopies may be a problem because not every photocopy paper is acid-free and archival-safe. Check the box or wrapper that the paper comes in; for these purposes, recycled paper is not a good choice.

Storage in cardboard is a definite no-no too. I learned this the hard way. I once purchased a beautiful signed and numbered print, “African Elephants,” by artist John Ruthven. It arrived in a stiff cardboard package. I set the print aside for a year or so before I decided to have it framed and matted. Imagine my horror when the framing gallery owner informed me that the print had been damaged and discolored by the cardboard in which the print had been shipped and stored. The print’s paper had already begun yellowing. Only through the application of a spray-on acid neutralizer and fixative was the damage halted. However, in the meantime, my expensive print had been so damaged that no other collector would ever want it.

Direct sunlight is a deadly enemy to paper products. Light and heat can cause photographic papers to age, fade, discolor, and deteriorate over time. Sunlight and bright light also interact with photographs of all types causing them to fade and disintegrate. (Keep in mind that photographs are created using controlled light exposure and even though the chemicals used and stop bath may halt the chemical developing process, prolonged exposure to bright light will fade some photographs and cause others to darken.)

Moisture and humidity can do more damage than you might think. They certainly can damage paper, causing it to warp, weaken, and deteriorate. They also provide an ideal environment for the formation of mold and mildew and a breeding ground for a variety of insects and parasites.

If you combine direct sunlight, moisture and humidity, acidic paper products, and general neglect, you have a perfect recipe for disaster. Proper storage is not as complicated as you might think, and with a little foresight and planning, you can develop your own archival preservation and storage environment.

Storage Basics
The ideal environment for storing genealogical materials would be clean, dark, cool, and have low humidity. Containers should always be archival-safe and acid- and lignin-free. That means no ordinary cardboard boxes or plastic storage containers. Both of these can wreak havoc on paper products. Likewise, the selection of file folders, storage sleeves, binders, and albums can be a critical matter.

All of us are guilty of gathering genealogical documents and setting them aside until we have the time to work with them. Short-term storage in non-archival-safe containers may do little damage, but you would do well to equip yourself with an archival-safe storage receptacle for that temporary period. Who knows how long it will be until you get around to filing and preserving your files?

Binders
There are many types of binders available. As your mother always said, you get what you pay for and a cheap binder is seldom a good investment. Many binders by themselves are not archival quality, although you can find them on the Internet in places like Light Impressions and Gaylord Archival Online. Creative Memories representatives sell excellent, archival-safe binders, albums, and scrapbooks and can help you learn how to preserve your treasures.

Even if you don’t use the expensive archival binders, you can still achieve excellent preservation results by using polypropylene sheet protectors, available at all office supply stores. Insert each using staples and metal paper clips; these can rust over time and damage your documents. If you must attach documents together, opt for vinyl-covered paper clips.

Organize to Organize
As you can see, it is important to select the right tools in order to preserve your genealogical research investment. Now is the time to prepare for the organizational task ahead. If your spouse or family members are looking for gift ideas for you, why not drop the hint that you would like to have archival storage supplies?

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

George’s book, The Official Guide to Ancestry.com, is now available from his company’s website, Aha! Seminars, Inc., personally autographed by the author. Listen to The Genealogy Guys Podcast each week for fun, entertaining, and informative genealogy discussions.

13 thoughts on “The Basics of Archival Document Storage, by George G. Morgan

  1. “—available at all office supply stores. Insert each using staples and metal paper clips;”

    this sentence is in the second paragraph under “Binders”. I know it is a mis-print, just wanted to bring it to your attention for correction.

    I enjoyed the rest of the article and appreciate the information. Thank you. Judi Paul

  2. Dear Mr Morgan,
    Great article and one I wish I had read in my salad days. I unknowingly stored a valuable Fraktur in various attics throughout my many moves while in the armed forces. It was by sheer luck it was contained in an acid-free container, but not impervious to bugs. When I acquired the document with some other things from my childhood home, I was told it did not have anything to do with our family and was bought at a yard sale by my grandmother. Now at 64 years of age and into genealogy, I find that the document is probably almost 200 years old and is definitely my great, great grandfather’s baptism document. Miraculously and through no “fault” of mine, it has survived, slightly nibbled by insects at the edges, but mainly in one piece. I am humbled and have taken a vow to preserve my relics in much better shape for my daughter and her children.

  3. I also scan copies of all of my documents and put them on CDs or DVDs so I have copies archived off site incase of a fire or something like that.

  4. Great advise and much needed by all “paper pack rats” like me.
    I have many maps, all sizes and of different basic material, some have plastic coating, two are on cotton material with acrylic paint, can you advise how to preserve these?

  5. “Containers should always be archival-safe and acid- and lignin-free. That means no ordinary cardboard boxes or plastic storage containers.” What should be used?

  6. In answer to #6. You can find these types of archival, museum quality boxes of various styles online. ‘google’ “archival storage”. They are acid and lignin free. Also, sometimes at genealogy conferences the venders may sell them; “Archivers” a store that mainly focuses on scrapbooking, if you’re lucky enough to live near one, sells them. They may be online by now. National Archives in DC gift shop, too. Scrapbooking places will sell the archival, acid-free and lignin-free pages and binders. Pens should also be acid & lignin free if you need to write on the boxes. Can be found at scrapbooking supplers. You can always ask local scrapbook shops if they can order the boxes for you. They are usually very happy to make special orders.

  7. This proved to be a very enightening write up, I had not realised how much damage could be caused. One hears comments about using Acid Free storage, but I have not had explained in great depth, so I thanks you for the information. Patricia Wosruff

  8. So sorry to hear about that Ruthven print!!! Damage such as the surface burning by cardboard or proximity to newsprint storage IS REVERSABLE.
    Contact the rare book room at your local university, and they can recommend conservators (possibly even right there at the univ.) who can provide this service. For a single print, depending on the size and damage, the cost is not horrible, especially for a treasured piece – can be only $50 – $150… Also, that insect-nibbled paper can be repaired beautifully.

  9. Thanks so very much for this invaluable information as I’m trying to preserve both family and church archives.
    Jan

  10. Did I miss any mention of using Archival Mist to deacidify anything from newsprint to whatever? If it is good enough for the Smithsonian it is good enough for me. I have news clippings that are more than 20 years old that look as if they came out of the paper today.

  11. I recently moved to within a half mile of the Oregon Coast. I have boxes full of genealogy research papers at an in-land location (mostly in boxes and 3-ring binders, also many books. Due to the volume of paper research I have,I probably have not been storing any of these items properly (although I do use acid-free sleeves for many single-sheet items), but now that I am living in a damp and higher humidity region, I need to figure out how to safely store all of my research materials in a storage facility. Any suggestions for storing a large amount of material relatively inexpensively in a commercial storage room? I do have a “climate-controlled” facility available (controls heat, cold, humidity) but how would I store within that facility?

  12. Hi , thanks for this information, this are loads of websites for online data storage but never ones about hard copies like this, thanks a million, great advice.

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