Saturday, August 8, 2015

Archiving Documents

This week, I thought I would give my tips for keeping the precious photos and historical/genealogical documents safe and in good condition. Some of these are common sense, and some of these have been compiled from various genealogical forums and other resources.

First, when handling old photographs, only handle the edges of the photo. Even as a kid, I hated the look of fingerprints on pictures, but it's not just an issue with aesthetics. The oils left behind on the face of the photo will ultimately damage the photo over time. If you must touch the photo faces, wear white cotton gloves.

One thing that is a major road block for most genealogists is unlabeled photos. I'm a person who doesn't really label my photos either, so I get it. Unfortunately, even though I know I'm looking at a photo of my uncle, my future grandkids may not know immediately who is in the photo. As a result, they may assume incorrectly the identity of the "mystery" person, or they may be unable to make any kind of assumption at all to his identity.

So, to label a photo, you have two options depending on the type of photo. If the photo is paper-based, use a soft lead pencil. If the photo is more modern (printed on resin-coated paper), use a waterproof, fade-resistant, permanent pen. And, for both utensils, you will want to write lightly. Don't damage the picture by pressing too hard and making indentations.

So now you know how to handle and label your photos. What do you do with them next? Find a way to store them!

I prefer scanning my images and keeping them on an external harddrive. Make sure to scan them correctly the first time so you don't have to handle to photos excessively. Scan them at the highest resolution possible to get the best result. Some home photo scanners can even read old negative strips you may find laying around and pull the photos straight from the source. I haven't scanned all of my photos yet, but the ones of family members tend to be my main priority so I can add them to the family tree.

Also important to know as far as digital photos goes is that JPG files lose a little bit of their content every time they are saved. Because of this, you want to avoid using JPG files if at all possible. TIFF would be a more preferable option.

Then, even though I love having digital copies of my photos, I am a pack rat, so I still like keeping the originals. When storing photos, use an archival-quality box. You can find these at craft stores, The Container Store, or even some department stores. Once the photos are in the proper container, store them in a temperature-controlled setting and keep them off the floor and away from any moisture or moisture-producing pipes or tanks. (If your photos get wet, air-dry them immediately. If you can not deal with the photos within a day or two, freeze them in small batches in Ziploc bags. When you are ready to fix them, unfreeze air-dry them.)

As with my photos, I love to keep digital copies of all of my important (and even not so important) family documents. Even times when I didn't have my scanner available, I will often find myself taking a photo of the record and then cropping the photo down to size.

For the actual papers themselves, keep all paper documents unfolded when you are storing them. You'll want to store them in an archival-quality folder or envelope. Now, most people tend to store their documents in hanging file folders, but I have noticed that over time, if the folders are not properly compressed, the pages start to sag and start to curl up. So, to fix this, store your paper documents flat. Document boxes work great here.

If the document is already folded, such as a letter, make sure to not force the paper flat. You don't want to accidentally tear the paper. Leave the paper open as far as it is comfortable for a while and see if gravity and the moisture in the air will do the work for you.

One type of document that kind of stands alone as far as archival techniques go are newspapers. Newspapers are not printed on the best paper for archival purposes. So, to assist with this, copy/digitize newspapers as soon as possible and then store the newspapers or clippings in a completely separate box. If you store them in the same box as your other documents or photos, the newspapers could actually damage the other documents.

I LOVE books. All kinds of books. Novels, plays, yearbooks, baby books, family bibles, magazines, cookbooks, etc. take up my entire second bedroom. (I always imagined having a large library in our house when we finally find a place to settle down.)

Of course, I scan whatever I can and store digital copies. Yearbooks have become one of my favorite resources lately (especially when researching my husband's family -- where everyone in his home county seems to be related!). I scan the photos and crop them down to the individual people, clubs, or sports teams. (This is a good example of one of those instances where you don't want to be dealing with a JPG, which loses quality and information every time it is re-saved.)

I also have a fascination with handwriting. The personal messages in yearbooks are such great insights to family history researchers! Did your family member (or at least his or her friends) have a sense of humor? Are there notes of past loves? A lot of people added their phone numbers or addresses too, so it can be great to use that information to recreate your family member's community.

I store all of my books of genealogical importance laying down (rather than standing up in traditional bookshelf fashion). Of course you want the books to be stored in a climate-controlled environment, meaning not the garage or attic, and away from any moisture.

Also, some books' covers tend to be a little sticky (yearbooks are bad for this in particular). They can stick to the book(s) above or below them, and sometimes it can damage the covers. If you find this to be the case for your books, or if you fear this may be the case, you can separate the books with some pieces of acid-free paper.

Finally, some books, especially old scrapbooks and baby books, may be keepsakes you want to preserve despite the fact that they may not have been made on acid-free paper. These may be cases when you would want to seal the book and its contents. Encapsulation is a reversible option for this where the pages or objects are placed in an archival sleeve and sealed with acid-free double-sided tape.

There are, of course, more detailed how-tos and guides out there for archiving documents and heirlooms, but these are the things I find myself using most often since I have very few heirlooms that are not in one of these forms. If you have any questions about any of my techniques or tips and tricks, feel free to contact me. Happy Archiving!

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