One of the joys of genealogy is being able to look back into time through old photographs, the visual images bring a depth and meaning to the cold hard facts that we so often deal with. It is not uncommon to come into contact with old photographs and documents that have been kept in boxes for years. Many of these artifacts have become frayed and tattered with time, all paper based documents will decay over time. Modern archival papers are much more capable of preserving photographs and documents that we might create today but the photographs and documents that were produced 50 or more years ago were not designed for archival and will suffer much more damage.
Interestingly, documents from the early 1800’s and earlier were often made of thicker and more durable paper or cloth simply due to the simplistic manufacturing processes and may be even more durable than those manufactured papers of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Handling photographs and documents
One of the most important things you can do in handling old photographs and documents is to wear a pair of clean soft gloves. The oils that naturally occur within your skin are detrimental to the documents and will accelerate their decay. This is not a question of how clean your hands are, it is simply a matter of naturally occurring oils from your skin coming into contact with these documents.
The next most important aspect of proper handling of these photographs and documents is to simply treat the very gently. Paper and fabrics typically become more brittle over time and any unnecessary movement or handling can result in damage. It is not uncommon to find documents that have been folded, photographs that have bent corners etc… As tempting as it may be it is often best to leave this as they are, do not try to straighten them as you are just as likely to tear or separate that component than you are to straighten it.
Separating old photographs and documents from each other is also important. Many different chemicals and inks can cross-contaminate and further accelerate the decay of each other, it is best to take that shoe box full of documents and put them into an acid-free archival album or storage sleeve.
Archival Storage Bags
The proper preserving of photographs and documents requires that you seal them from the elements that will accelerate their decay. Typically, this is best accomplished by sealing these documents into a polypropylene bag . Polypropylene will keep the destructive elements off of your photographs and documents while still allowing them to be fully visible as the material is crystal clear. You can purchase these bags in a number of sizes and ideally will keep one photograph or document per bag. Keeping one per bag will also allow you to write on or place a sticker of important information about the contents of the bag without marring the original document.
Preserving photographs and documents that are your family heirlooms will help to insure that these artifacts will survive for future generations and provide an indelible link to your family’s past.