Protecting Your Family’s History – Day 1

July 11, 2014 10am-12pm

For the next three Fridays from 10am-12pm, I will be sitting in on a class entitled “Protecting Your Family’s History”, which is an Osher class taught at University of Richmond’s Boatwright Memorial Library by Lynda – Head of the Rare Books and Special Collections. Osher classes are classes for persons who are 50 years of age and older who love to learn. The following website can shed some light on this fantastic program. 

“Protecting Your Family’s History” is exactly what it sounds like: keeping family letters, pictures, films, DVDs, silver, books, and important documents safe and ensuring their survival. Each person in the class (10 total) seemed to have the exact same reasons for being there: they had become a repository of their family documents, but weren’t sure how to care for these fragile and aging items. For two hours, Lynda went over many different tips and general rules of protecting their family’s history while the class ooed, ahed, and took pages of notes. The following is information I found to be especially helpful, but please keep in mind that these are my personal notes, as a student, and therefore may not be fully accurate. A wonderful website that Lynda gave to the students will be quite helpful for you as well, especially if you put any of the below information into practice: I hope you will be able to utilize it to protect your family’s history…

What do I do? Chances are that you probably have a great deal of items saved from loved ones that are still with you and those that have passed on. Perhaps you placed many of these items in a box to keep them safe, but where did you put the box and what kind of box did you put the items in? While you want to protect these items, you likely feel overwhelmed just looking at that box…or boxes. There’s no getting around the feeling of being overwhelmed, but perhaps if you have some general tips and a plan you will feel better about approaching that full to bursting box…or boxes.

  • First you have to open the box… (Eeeeks!)
  • Make piles or better yet get a few plastic bins to help you sort the items. You want to place items of a similar nature in each bin: one for official documents, marriage certificates, etc. You’ll want one for photos, and one for personal correspondence, and one for DVDs and video reels. You can organize the items however you want; the important thing is that you organize them. Some of the items you come across might need some extra attention, such as books and papers that are moldy or dirty or falling apart. It’s perfectly okay to touch the items, unless there is visible mold, then you will need some gloves and a mask to protect yourself, and make sure to go outside and brush these items off with a feathery light brush. Also, make sure to wear gloves when handling photos and items that are metallic…the oils in your hands can rub off on these items.
  • You don’t need to place everything in archival folders and boxes and buy acid free protection sleeves, etc. because these items will be quite costly. Instead, you can use plastic bins that have a lid, but crack the lid just a touch to allow for air.
  • The ideal setting for storing documents is between 60 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity level between 40%-60%. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to acquire these settings, but there are some things you can do to protect them from your surrounding environment: Avoid attics, basements, barns, and other areas that will be damp. These areas can lead to your documents getting damaged by water and/or mold, as well as being infested with bugs and other nibblers. Items should receive as little direct sunlight and UV light as possible, as light, as well as heat, can be harmful to documents, photos, and DVDs and video reels. One tip to tell if a photo or a video is deteriorating is if it smells like vinegar.
  • Once you know how you want to organize your items, remove all staples, paper clips, and post-it notes, but only do so if removing these items won’t damage the documents.
  • The most important thing, which Lynda stresses, is to not do anything to items that cannot be undone! This means no laminating! Laminating can not be undone. Once something is laminated it will always be laminated, which means it will start to turn yellow and deteriorate. Don’t use ink when writing on any folders you may put your documents in; ink can bleed.
  • Dust off dirty items with a feathery soft brush and make sure to do it outside. You don’t want to breathe in that dirt or mold! There are a few items you can use to help you clean your documents and books, such as a soft feathery brush, document cleaning pads, a vulcanized rubber sponge, and a polymer eraser.
  • Remove all letters from their envelopes and flatten them out. The longer you leave them in the envelope, the harder it will be to flatten them because the paper will become brittle and crack. One tip Lynda gave for unfolding and unrolling documents that seem to be at the brittle cracking stage is to get a trash can, place some water in the trash can, place another trash can inside of it, place your unfolded or unrolled documents in the inner trash can so they will not be directly exposed to water, place a lid on top of the trash cans, then check on the documents every hour until they feel flexible enough to unroll or unfold. Place the items on a flat surface and cover with a towel until the items are dry. Nifty trick!
  • Newspaper is extremely acidic, so if you have any clippings make sure to isolate them in their own folder. One thing to remember is that the information in the article is the important information that you don’t want to lose, it’s not the physical paper itself, so it’s okay to make a copy and throw out the original. I was a bit shocked when Lynda first told me this, but it makes sense…we save things because of the information they house, to remind us of a special event or an honor a family member received, so having that exact piece of newspaper isn’t the biggest deal, it’s the information within that we care about and sometimes the best way to protect that information is to make a copy.
  • Make sure to identify any photos you find. You may know who is in the photo and why the photo was taken, but future generations may lose that information. There are special blue pencils you can buy that will allow you to write on the back of the photo.
  • You don’t have to save everything! And you probably don’t have room to save it all! It’s okay to throw some things away!
  • Feel free to hang your photos or place them around the house for you and your family to enjoy, but keep them away from fireplaces, radiators, and other heat sources, and rotate them out so they don’t receive direct sunlight or UV light for extended periods of time.
  • CDs and DVDs do not last forever! They deteriorate over time; in fact, CDs last less than 10 years and DVDs last even less! So, back up your CDs and backup your DVDs. Create a plan for how often you are going to create new copies of your CDs and DVDs. Or you can make a photo book out of the pictures that are probably on your DVDs and CDs. These books will last much longer than the physical CDs and DVDs will.
  • Make an inventory of everything you have and keep your boxes off of the floor! If your house gets flooded, so will your family’s treasures!
  • If you don’t want to keep your family’s treasures anymore then donate them! Your local library, archive, or historic society will probably take them off of your hands because family documents tell a lot about a family, but they also tell a lot about the local area and history…all information that libraries, archives, and historic societies are interested in!
  • And finally, enjoy the process! Enjoy looking through your family’s history, learning new stories and reliving old ones. Share the stories with your kids and grandkids who will one day inherit your family treasures!



2 responses to “Protecting Your Family’s History – Day 1

    • I learned a lot in just this first day of her class. I went in thinking that laminating was probably a great idea because it would prevent things from getting to the document…little did I know! I also assumed that a cool, dark basement was the best location to store documents, but it’s actually the worst! And, when we think about protecting our family’s treasures we typically assume that we should put them in a box & never take them out again, but then who will enjoy them? Who will we share the history and stories with? They’re “treasures” because they mean something to us and that is exactly why we should share them.

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