Tuesday, April 24, 2012


May is Preservation Month, a topic that has become increasingly important over the years. In this blog post, we will outline some of the preservation techniques you could use to help preserve your family records, photos, and memorabilia. This subject will be offered as a program to be held at the Coronado Public Library this summer, scheduled for July 14 at 2:00pm. The information below is a highlight of the information that will be covered and is also offered by a variety of preservation-oriented organizations and institutions.

Family documents and historical memorabilia on paper are widely held but subject to the same enemies everywhere. Water and flooding can make certain inks or watercolors run or bleed. Water can also warp, stain and cause mildew to books and paper. Floods can not be avoided, but it is cautious to store paper-based items away from water-heaters, washing machines, and basements, garages, or walls that can be prone to rain or water intrusion. Mildew can also form on walls that are shaded and prone to getting wet. Mildew can form on the inside drywall in such circumstances and transfer to the spines of books or other papers and fabrics.

Wet photos at the Cornell University Library

Photographs that become wet should be dried individually. Wet photos that are stacked and left to dry naturally can stick together, causing tearing or loss of the film emulsion when separated. This situation is best left to a professional, but it you must separate photos that are stuck together this can be achieved by immersing the photos in a bath of distilled water. When the photos become saturated they can usually be separated more easily (but still carefully). Curling can also take place from either drying naturally, or if the photos are exposed to dry heat. Wet photos that are mounted on card stock or album pages should be removed gently from the pages. Drying photos can be achieved by blotting with paper towels or preferably cotton towels. They can be fan dried or hung on a clothes line (avoid direct sun)but will likely need to be pressed between two clean smooth sheets of toweling with a slight weight on them. Photographic prints began their life in a wet solution so they can take water pretty well if dried afterwards. Distilled water can also be used as a bath if there are debris or soiling from dirt or mud. Wet books should be fanned open and dried with a fan. Other paper can be cotton towel dried flat assuming there is no ink or pigment run-off or bleeding. Institutions that have been subject to flooding will usually use freeze-drying techniques when the quantities of materials is high.

Fragile or important documents should be stored in a container or folder that is acid-free or archival quality. This will keep the documents away from light, which fades pigments and inks and which will also degrade paper itself. Paper items should be unfolded if possible, and paper clips and staples removed to prevent rust staining. Good quality mylar or polyurethane sleeves can be used for many documents as well as photographs. Storing flat is best, but upright is okay if the items are supported so as not to fold over. Photos that are in old photo albums that used card stock pages or self-sticking pages are not in a good environment. Today there are better quality, archival stock albums available. Rare books and important bound documents are best preserved in a wrapper container such as picture below or in an appropriately sized  clamshell box.

Folding wrapper for fragile books or documents

Clamshell box for rare books

Very old photographic prints are very fragile. They are best stored separately in an archival folder or plastic sleeve. You should not use adhesive tape on tears as this causes staining and later removal problems. This applies to photos as well as to any paper item. Newspaper or newsprint paper is very fragile and is high in acid content so this type of paper should not be stored touching other paper items as the acid will migrate and stain the other items as well as causing accelerated deterioration. Even in the proper container, family documents, paper, photos, or books should not be stored in damp conditions like in a basement or in the dry hot environment of a typical attic.

Many cherished documents and old photos are framed and mounted on walls for display. Unless light, either natural or electrical, is limited, the items will be prone to fading. Over time, inks or colors will fade until the document is hard to read or the image is faint. It is best to remove the original, digitize or scan it, and display the copy while preserving the original. Old frames and their backing are themselves not archivally safe containers. Paper-based  items are also subject to being eaten by silverfish or other bugs. These can get especially bad in garages. Silverfish packets  or tablets obtainable at hardware stores can help reduce these pests.

Color photographs are especially prone to fading under light. And the mid-century Kodak color prints have often faded under any storage circumstance. These too can be scanned and displayed if desired. Older black and white photographic prints can also show "silvering" or have clouded area on the print. This is a natural reaction over time coming from the film emulsion that was used. Sepia toning can result from light exposure, but can also take place naturally to older photos. Negatives should be handled and stored under the same conditions as prints - with minimal (or no) touching of the face of the negative. They are best stored individually. Slides can also be stored in plastic sheets with individual pockets. Small photographic prints can be stored in smaller-sized archival envelopes and then in archival boxes made available for the purpose. Photographs, slides, and negatives can be digitized and stored on electronic file devices.

Paper cleaning products are commercially available

Soiled paper documents (and prints) can often be cleaned by using special erasers or gums. This works best on dirt stains. Oil stains or tape stains are best left to professionals to clean. Rust staining or "foxing" is often a by-product of the particular paper-making process used and is often permanent. The same goes for mildew stains.

These book pages show "foxing" stains, usually caused by excessive iron in the water used in the paper-making process.

Textiles are subject to the same enemies as paper: light; water; bugs; and mildew, mold, or framed display. Often they are improperly stored as well. Archival boxes and acid-free tissue or good cotton sheeting is best, with the item stored flat. For very old and historic clothing, normal clothes hangers are not recommended as the weight of the garment will eventually weaken or tear the fabric at the shoulders. Also clothing is prone to damage from food or oil stains, make-up, or cleaning product residue. Moth balls are actually damaging to wool and cedar is almost as bad.

Costume storage at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum

Flat storage for antique costumes or clothing with interior padding in drawers, or in flat archival boxes is ideal. Folding of textiles will cause the fabric to weaken at the crease. Similar storage techniques can be used for antique samplers, embroideries, and flags.

Padded hangers are commercially available that can be used for hanging clothing that is not fragile.

Various suppliers can provide specialty products for storing documents, papers, photos, and other memorabilia. Some of the ones that supply libraries and archives (and individual customers) are:

Hollinger Metal Edge

University Products

Archival Products

The Library of Congress also has a Frequently Asked Questions" about preservation on their
website, along with other useful information, see: LOC FAQs

Your heritage and legacy is important. Protect it while you can or seek professional advice or referrals from libraries and museums.