Family collections often consist of precious but fragile items: letters, newspaper collections, certificates and scrapbooks. This guide gives advice on protecting these collections.
What’s a family collection?
Family collections and personal archives usually consist of paper artefacts such as letters, diaries, certificates, photographs, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, documents and artworks. Careful handling and storage will extend the life of these items.
Care and handling
Always wash your hands before handling paper artefacts. Paper easily absorbs skin oils and perspiration that can cause damage and staining. If fragile material needs to be looked at frequently, photocopy the original onto acid-free paper, or take a photograph and use the digital image file.
Modern newsprint (since the mid-1800s) is not a stable material. Newspapers and newspaper clippings will degrade over time and become yellow and brittle. Most fax paper is also inherently unstable. Preserve the information on these items by making photocopies onto acid-free paper.
Even if documents have tears and holes do not use sticky tapes such as Sellotape or masking tape to make repairs. They can cause lasting damage and staining. This is true also of repair tapes – even those marketed as acid-free tapes or glues may cause damage. Better to use an acid-free folder or sleeve than attempt to repair.
Metal fasteners such as staples, metal paper clips or pins may rust. Remove any existing metal fastenings and replace with plastic paperclips, or plastic-coated clips. Rubber bands dry out and become hard and brittle so it is a good idea to remove them.
Do not laminate items you value and want to preserve. This process is irreversible and eventually causes damage to the items. Do not use magnetic albums (albums with sticky cardboard pages and plastic covers that cling to the items inside). Adhesive on the pages will damage the items. It can also be difficult to remove items from this type of album.
Loose surface dirt and dust can be removed using a soft brush. If paper smells musty, it has been exposed to damp or very humid conditions and mould may have developed. Dry the item out thoroughly in a space with good air circulation, but do not apply heat. Mould can be brushed away with a soft brush after the material has thoroughly dried. Do this outside on a sunny day. Be cautious, as mould can be harmful to human health. If any health effects are observed while working with mouldy items, consult a doctor.
Your collection needs a clean environment with good air circulation, low light and consistent temperature and humidity.
Store your collections where they have minimal exposure to light as this can cause irreversible fading and discolouration. Also avoid storage in warm, damp locations such as sheds or garages.
Letters and documents are best stored flat and unfolded in acid-free folders. Folding and unfolding can break paper along the fold line. However, folded items that are very brittle should not be forced to open flat as this could cause further damage. Folders can be made from acid-free card or purchased from conservation suppliers. Standard office folders can be used if the documents inside are placed between sheets of acid-free paper to prevent contact with the folder.
If you want to use plastic enclosures or sleeves to store loose items, use only polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene sleeves , which can be purchased from conservation suppliers. Do not use potentially damaging plastics such as PVC (recycle code 3). Plastic sleeves are not recommended for photographs stored in a high-humidity environment as they may stick to the plastic.
Folders or sleeves of loose material may be stored in boxes. Archival boxes and storage enclosures are available from conservation suppliers. Standard cardboard boxes may be used if they are first lined with an isolating material such as polyethylene sheeting, or acid-free tissue or paper.
Do not store your collection directly on the floor or near water pipes. A burst water pipe can cause tremendous damage. If water damage does occur, dry the affected items immediately in cool, circulating air.
If you are displaying items like photographs or pictures avoid direct sunlight or substitute a copy if possible. Use blinds and curtains to reduce direct light. An interior hallway can be a good display area. Potentially humid areas, such as bathrooms, kitchens or exterior walls are not good places for displaying valuable pictures or photographs. Sources of heat can also cause materials to become very dry and brittle.
Regular cleaning of storage and display areas is a good way of helping to ensure that your collection remains dust and pest free.
Purchasing storage materials
Terms such as ‘acid-free’, ‘museum quality’ or ‘archival quality’ are often used when describing storage materials. However, these terms are not standardised and could be misleading. When selecting conservation materials, some terms to look out for include:
Paper, card or board that is:
- ‘Buffered’: This means that an alkaline substance (eg calcium carbonate) has been added as a buffer to counteract acids that may form in the future. Most papers, documents, photographs and photographic negatives can be stored in buffered material.
- ‘Unbuffered’: This means that no alkaline buffers have been added. Cyanotypes and blueprints (previously used to copy architectural plans) must be stored in unbuffered material.
- ‘pH neutral’ or ‘pH 7’: This means that an alkaline substance has been added and the paper is considered in the base or alkaline range (pH 7 and above).
- If you are framing documents or papers, look for mat board made from cotton rag or 100% chemically purified wood pulp.
Plastic that is chemically inert (free of excess plasticisers, surface coatings and other harmful chemicals). Safe plastics include:
- Polyester: recycle code 1, brand names include Mylar and Melinex, sometimes abbreviated to PET.
- Polypropylene: recycle code 5, sometimes abbreviated to PP.
- Polyethylene: recycle code 2 or 4, sometimes abbreviated to PE.
Conservation materials may be purchased from some stationery, craft or scrapbooking suppliers. Specialist conservation suppliers offer a wide range of conservation materials.
Family collections often consist of precious but fragile items: letters, newspaper collections, certificates and scrapbooks. You can get more detailed professional advice and assistance in caring for your family heritage items from the National Preservation Office.
Download the Caring for family collections guide
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Our family collections guide is available in te reo Māori, Samoan and Tongan.