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Preserving Family Collections

The best protection for your books, papers, photographs, and prints is a "safe" environment: moderate temperature and relative humidity; clean air and good air circulation; no natural or fluorescent light; and good housekeeping.

Avoid powerful sources of heat, damp, and pollution; don’t store your valuable books, photos, and paper in attics or basements, or near water sources like washing machines or bathrooms. Think about what’s in the room above your heirlooms, too.

Heat causes damage. Don’t hang valuable objects over radiators, heat-producing appliances, or the fireplace. Books you want to read twenty years from now shouldn’t be shelved on the mantel, the windowsill, or the radiator.

Light causes fading and other damage. Keep photos and art (prints, watercolors, and other works on paper) in the dark as much as possible. Don’t put valuable books and paper where they’ll get direct sun or bright light of any kind. Hallways or other rooms without windows are best. Install and use shades and heavy curtains where you can’t avoid windows.

Use a museum-quality (fully "acid-free") mat and frame to display any valuable photo or artwork—even children’s drawings. Indoor pollution (such as smoking) is a growing problem in energy-conscious spaces with good insulation, and causes rapid damage to paper. The glass or plastic glazing of a frame will keep pollutants and dirt away, and handling or tacks will not damage edges.

If you want your wedding pictures (or photos of any event) to last for your grandchildren, have the photographer take a roll of black and white photos. Video, color slides, and most color prints have a limited life expectancy.

If you want to keep a clipping from the newspaper for the long term, have it photocopied onto buffered paper (e.g. Xerox XXV Century Bond or Howard Permalife). The copy will last far longer than the original.

Letters, clippings, and other documents you want to preserve should be stored unfolded in buffered folders. Folding and unfolding breaks envelopes and can cause damage as items are removed replaced. If you can’t find buffered folders, use a sheet of buffered paper at the front and back of a folder.

When storing photos in an album, use "photo" or "archival" mounting corners (available from photography suppliers, archival material catalogs, or stamp dealers), not glues or self-sealing plastic (which can stick to or react with your pictures).

To remove the musty smell from old books, make sure they are dry. Put them in a cool, dry space for a couple of days, or put them outside on a table in the sun on a dry, breezy day for a couple of hours. If the musty smell remains put them in an open container (e.g. polyethylene pail, box) inside a larger, closed container (e.g. clean, dry garbage pail, box) with an open box of baking soda or a potpourri. Do not allow the deodorizer to touch the books. Leave them for a few days in a cool place, checking once a day to make sure no mold is growing. Remove to a safe storage environment.

To remove staples or old paperclips from documents (especially if they’re rusty), slide a piece of stiff plastic (e.g. polyester, polypropylene) under the fastener on both sides of the document. Slide the paperclip off the plastic, or use a pair of tweezers or a thin knife to bend the edges of the staple up and pry it out. The plastic will protect the paper from abrasion and your tools. Staples pullers tear the paper.

This list was developed by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), 24 School Street, Andover, Massachusetts and is endorsed by the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Seventh Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee.

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