Saving Your Family Treasures: Four Destructive Habits, by Maureen Taylor

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 won’t transfer surface grime from one photo or document to another. Try the white glove test with your pictures. You won’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 don’t know where to buy some inexpensive supplies search “white cotton gloves” in an online search engine to locate vendors. I recently ordered a dozen for around $8.00. That’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 I’m asked is where to store photographs and documents. The best place is often the hardest to find—a windowless closet away from exterior walls and water pipes. I don’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. It’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 you’ll end up destroying the material you’re trying to save.

Here’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 can’t be reversed. Anything laminated slowly deteriorates due to the glue, the chemicals in the plastic, and the ingredients of the item you’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, you’re trying to caption a picture with a plastic coating then you’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. Don’t worry that you don’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 together—gloves, boxes, and writing utensils for that special person on your list. You can find additional information on preserving family history treasures on Sally Jacob’s blog.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Maureen Taylor is the Photo Detective Her work was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal.

8 thoughts on “Saving Your Family Treasures: Four Destructive Habits, by Maureen Taylor

  1. I have been using latex, powder free, gloves for handling old photos (and new ones I print up to restore the old). Should I be doing this? They are also handy when handling the achival quality papers I print out my info on – especially when picking them up – no need to bend corners. Also very handy opening up new archival sleeves I put the pages and photo pages in when they stick (new ones do that!). Alternately, especially in summer, or doing a lot, I wash my hands constantly. Right now have been doing a book for my stepfather for Christmas (been afew years in the making) and my hands are so dry I figure they are perfect for the job – but starting to hurt on the backs from dryness! I deliberately don’t use any hand creams even at night except some on the backs when I shower – then wash my hands…
    But is the latex gloves an alternative to hand washing? I assumed it was but you don’t mention it!
    Lesley Cluff

  2. I have found that pencil on the backs of old photo’s in time is very hard to read. What I have been doing since July of this year is using Adobe Photoshop Elements, after scanning my old photo’s, I have put the full names of each person on these photo’s with this program, the year taken if I know it. I have sent these finished photo’s to my family members vie e-mails here in the USA, and also back to 3rd cousins in Hungary.
    I have also restored any damage to them from aging. This has made it a lot easier to know as soon as the picture appears just who the person is.
    To protect my hard work and many, many hours I have used a memory stick as my back up for the files. I think this is a wonderful way for family members to share their photo’s.

  3. Besides taking precautions to preserve original photos, copying them into the computer (and labeling them as you go) is also important. Filing the copies on disks on an external drive is one way to keep track of what pictures you have.

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  7. Have a tablecloth to pass on to my grand daughter that was her great-grandmothers. How do I protect. I have it wrapped in white tissue paper and then wrapped with a linen towel. I could use some help. Thanks

  8. To: Carol A. Brown

    Memory sticks are convenient for short-term storage for moving files from one place to another, but don’t rely on them for long-term storage. Unfortunately, they just aren’t up to that job.

    The safest single place to store computer files is an external hard disk. I know that isn’t as convenient as a memory stick, but it is far safer. Even an external hard disk is not safe permanently. They both deteriorate and become obsolete, so the contents should be copied onto a new external hard drive from time to time — 10-year intervals probably is safe.

    To be especially cautious, it is best to make at least two copies of your files and store them in different locations. Two external hard drives is good. One external hard drive plus a second copy on recordable CDs or recordable DVDs is also good. There are still a lot of question about the lifetime of recordable CDs and recordable DVDs, so if you use them for long-term storage, they should be recopied more frequently. Every three years probably would be prudent. And the new copies probably should be made from the external hard disk, not from the old CDs or DVDs.

    There are more elaborate ways of storing copies of your files such that the contents of a file can be reconstructed even if all of your copies of the file have been partially corrupted, but I don’t know of easy-to-use backup software that uses those techniques, so I can’t suggest them for general use.

    Computer technology can be good for preserving material, but it requires developing some good habits about preserving the computer files. The simple rule to learn is to make multiple copies of your files and don’t store them all in the same place.

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