7. Preserving your documents and photographs
While researching your family, it is likely that you will collect a number of documents and photographs relating to your own history and the history of your family.
Taking proper care of these precious records now will help keep them safe for yourself and future generations.
Looking after records can be as technical as arranging for detailed treatments by a professional conservator or as straight forward as following some simple preventative measures when storing and handling your records at home to extend their life.
Try to keep in mind when handling records and photographs the following:
- always handle with care
- don't place food or drinks nearby
- have clean, dry hands
- use a rigid support, such as a piece of cardboard when carrying fragile or large papers
- place sheets of paper or tissue between old or fragile documents to protect them
- use pencil not ink
- try to avoid excessive handling of old or fragile material
- consider putting old or fragile documents in plastic bags or display folders so that they do not have to be directly handled to be viewed
- always consider photocopying or scanning documents so that you have a copy that can be used without needing to handle the original.
Simple storage measures protect paper-based items against physical damage, light and dust. They can also help to reduce large variations in temperature and relative humidity fluctuations that can physically stress records and accelerate their deterioration.
Where should I store my records?
The area you choose to store your records should be, as far as possible:
- clean and dust free
- fairly dark as light degrades materials more quickly
- kept at a stable temperature and humidity level
- not too dry or damp, not too hot or cold
- fairly well ventilated, if possible, to inhibit mould growth
- regularly checked for mould and for outbreaks of insects or rodents.
Areas that can be suitable for storing your records include under the bed in a box, or at the bottom
of a chest of drawers. Areas to avoid include those that are close to water pipes, heaters and food. Storing records near external walls should also be avoided as these are areas where temperature and humidity can change often.
In areas that might be flood prone, don't store items on the floor. Instead, use the top shelf of a wardrobe or linen cupboard.
If you live in a humid climate, it might be best to use paper folders rather than plastic sleeves. Humidity can build up inside plastic sleeves and take a long time to escape. This gives mould the opportunity to grow.
Paper folders can be things like expanding files, manila folders, folded photocopy paper or standard envelopes. If you can find these things made from archival paper, use that, but otherwise standard stationery items can be used.
Check your documents, and if you see mould starting to grow, seek advice from your state library, state museum, or a national institution like the National Archives of Australia.
What type of containers and folders should I keep my records in?
- Use 'copy safe' document sleeves, zip lock sandwich bags or oven bags. These and other products marked PP (polypropylene), PE, LDPE or HDPE (polyethylene, low or high density) or PET (polyethylene terephthalate or polyester) are suitable.
- Keep torn items together by placing all the pieces in a plastic sleeve. These can then be photocopied or scanned so that you have a complete copy that you can easily access.
- Keep your records in a protective corrugated cardboard or plastic box. Packaging can provide some protection against humidity and temperature variations.
Some inexpensive storage options that you can use at home include:
- zip lock sandwich bags or oven bags
- 'copy safe' document sleeves
- expanding document file
- plastic sleeves (of the appropriate plastic) in a ring binder with a cardboard cover
- acid-free pocket style photo album
- sturdy cardboard box with a lid.
Storage options to avoid:
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic (this is the common type that has a very typical plastic smell and a slightly greasy feel to the surface)
- sticky tape as it can cause chemical and physical damage
- coloured paper – don't use coloured papers for packaging, not even plain brown paper as they are generally acidic and can cause harm to your records
- photo albums with PVC plastic sleeves or folders
- photo albums with sticky pages ('magnetic' self-adhesive albums) as the removal of photographs from the pages becomes increasingly difficult as the adhesive ages
- lamination – once the lamination is applied it cannot be easily removed and will result in the slow deterioration of your item.
For specific advice about preserving photographic materials (prints, negatives and transparencies); preserving other record formats such as volumes, film, CDs and DVDs; recovering flood and fire damaged records; displaying archival records; and creating a time capsule, see the National Archives' website.
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