Family Archivist

Help! I’m the Family Archivist!

Part IV: Storing Your Archive (Part B)

By Rachel Smith

Today’s blog will be discussing Step 4 in the “Organize Your Archive Workflow.” If you have not completed Steps 1, 2, and 3 at this point, it is highly recommended to do so before storing your collection!

Organize Your Archive Workflow:

  1. Organize
  2. Categorize
  3. Prioritize
  4. Store

STEP 4: Storing

Finding the Right Space

Finding a safe place to store your family archive is essential. While attics and basements are mainstays for storage, they are some of the un-safest places to house your collection in your home. Most documents and photographs are made out of paper, which expands in hot, humid climates and contracts in cold, dry environments. When they are stored in spaces with fluctuating temperature and humidity, paper items can become warped and brittle as they struggle to adjust these changes.

However, insulated attics and basements are okay because you see less drastic changes in temperature and humidity. If you are storing your collection in a basement, make sure to keep it at least 5” off the floor to protect it from flooding.

The best locations in your home are in closets; against interior walls; and inside cupboards, cabinets with tight-fighting doors, and steel filing cabinets. Essentially, the places you want to store your archive follow the Goldilocks Principle: somewhere that is not too cold, not too hot, not too wet, not too dry, just right! While our humidity levels in Colorado do tend to be on the lower side, you want to make your storage space has stable temperature and humidity levels.

Make sure that you aren’t placing your items directly under a vent because dust is abrasive to film negatives and it can also attract pests! To help protect your collection from pests, clean and dust the storage area at least a couple times a year. If you do end up finding pests and other insects, avoid fumigating your collection because the chemicals will damage it and harm anyone who handles the items afterwards!

Purchasing Supplies

One of the reasons why you did an inventory of your archive is so you know how many and which types of supplies you need to get. The best thing you can do for your archives is to store them inside of closed containers with lids. Closed containers will protect your items from light exposure, dust, and pests.

Photographs and documents are best stored in archival containers, which are made out of materials that are at a neutral (7.0) or basic (8.0 and higher) rating on the pH scale. Boxes made out of acidic (6.0 and lower) materials react negatively to items on paper. Over a long period of time, the acid in these materials will leech onto your photographs and documents, causing them to discolor and make them brittle.

Among the best containers to store your archives are blueboard boxes and solander boxes. Blueboard is a kind of blue corrugated board that is acid and lignin-free. Solander boxes, which have a clamshell opening, are great for storing documents and items that you want to store flat.

However, archival supplies are very rare to find in brick and mortar stores and are almost exclusively sold online by retailers like Gaylord Archival, University Products, Hollinger, and Light Impressions. They are also expensive, and if you have a large collection that you want to house entirely in archival supplies, you will be spending a lot of money.

If archival-quality containers are out of your budget, steel filing cabinets, metal foot lockers, and suitcases with a working closure are good alternatives. Just make sure you don’t store your collection in cardboard boxes, plastic storage boxes, or trash bags!

Storing Photographs from the 20th century and Beyond (1900 -)

If you have a photograph collection, dumping them loose in a container won’t do much to protect them. When loose photographs come in contact with one another, they can leech acids onto one another. Having a barrier between your loose prints is a necessity.

Archival polyester sleeves are the best for storing loose photographic prints and snapshots from the 20th century to the present. They come in a variety of sizes to fit various standard size prints (ex: 6”x4”, 8”x10”). Any type of plastic sleeve which indicates on the packaging that it has passed the PAT (Photographic Activity Test), a test which examines how photographs and negatives react to different kinds of plastic, is good for photographs. You can order sleeves online from archival retailers, but some photography and craft stores may sell them.

Plastic sandwich bags are not a good alternative because they are made from inexpensive, acidic plastic!

Storing Photographs from the 19th century (1800s)

Since older photographs like daguerreotypes and tintypes are made from different materials than photo paper, they are stored in a different material. In general, photographs from the 19th century should be stored individually in envelopes made out of unbuffered archival paper. Archival paper does not have acids nor lignin, a polymer present in most paper that causes it to become yellow and brittle as it ages.

You should also ensure that your envelopes are unbuffered. Buffered paper, which means that the paper is impregnated with calcium carbonate (CaCO3), is good for slowing down or even removing acid from some types of paper. However, when buffered paper comes in contact with photographs from the 19th century, the calcium carbonate can bleach away the images!

Storing Loose Photographs (General)

When storing your loose photographs, you can put your sleeved photographs inside of large envelopes if you want to be even more organized! The ones we use at the museum are made out of archival unbuffered paper. Just make sure that you don’t overstuff the envelopes, which will cause the photographs to bend or even rip.

If you’re not keen on storing your photographs in sleeves, you can always purchase an archival photo album or an album made out of acid and lignin-free materials. You can purchase these albums from online archival retailers, but scrapbook and craft stores may sell them. Make sure that the label explicitly says acid-free, lignin-free, and has passed the PAT first! Some albums may say that they’re “archival” or “archival quality” on the packaging, but they aren’t always made out of archival materials. Never purchase “magnetic albums” either! These albums with sticky pages will damage your photographs and make them difficult to remove.

Some archival albums come with pouches or sleeves built into them, but if yours does not, you can purchase acid-free photo corners at most scrapbook or craft stores. Spray mounts, glue, tape, rubber cement, and other adhesives should never be used to stick your photographs to a page! They will physically alter and discolor your photographs, and they may be difficult or impossible to remove safely without a professional conservator.

If you’d like to store your photographs in an archival album, it’s best to store that album inside a closed container for further protection.

Storing Albums, Scrapbooks, and Other Bound Items

Photograph albums and scrapbooks from your family members present an interesting problem for conservation. Albums are not just the pages, album cover, and binding, but they are filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, invitations, and other paper items and paraphernalia.

You can always stick a piece of acid-free tissue paper between each page. However, this will make your album thicker, which may put extra strain on the binding and spine. If you want to protect the most precious or fragile items in a scrapbook or photo album, you could interleave those pages with a piece of acid-free tissue paper.

It’s also important to go through a scrapbook and remove any staples or paperclips that are easy and safe to remove. Office supply stores often sell archival paperclips, which are made out of acid-free plastic and won’t rust onto your pages. Avoid removing items which will not give away easily, as you may tear or damage something pasted down in a scrapbook in the process.

If the binding of a scrapbook or album is falling apart, you can remove it only if it comes off with ease. Never cut off a spine or binding with scissors yourself because you don’t want to accidentally stab or cut through the pages!

Books are best stored flat, or on their spine if you must. Albums and books of a similar size can be stored in a single box to conserve space. They should not be stored on their bottom edges because gravity will cause undue strain.

Paper Documents

Paper artifacts like certificates and diplomas are best stored flat in boxes. You can order acid free folders in custom sizes from archival supply retailers or interleave pieces of acid-free tissue paper between each item. If you have large documents like maps or family tree charts, a piece of blueboard behind them can provide some stability and make it easier to pick up and move. Do not paste the document to the blueboard itself!

Laminating an old document that is yellowed and crumbling might seem tempting, but the plastic and adhesive used in the process will further deteriorate it. Archival polyester and mylar sleeves are a great alternative.

Storing Your Collection

You should now have an idea of what kinds of supplies you need to buy. You might decide that you want to buy archival supplies for only your most precious and fragile items. Or you might decide that you want to buy archival supplies in batches. However, some archival supply companies do offer free shipping on orders over a certain value, so you might save some money by ordering your supplies all at once. But no matter what kinds of and how many supplies you purchase, it’s best to do your research before making impulsive buys.

When you obtain your supplies, work slowly and carefully when rehousing your family archive. While you’re at it, if you come across any photographs where you recognize the people, you should take the opportunity to write their names on the back and any other information! 50 or 100 years later, your descendants will very much appreciate having that at hand! Use a non-permanent marking tool to write on the back. A pencil works great on photographs with a paper back. Photographs with a glossy backing can be written on with a color pencil or a blue photo pencil, which can be purchased at a photography, art supply, scrapbook, or craft store.

Once you have stored everything, make sure that you label your containers or file drawers so you can easily locate items. You might want to create a brief catalogue or descriptive inventory of your family archive as well. No one is expected to have the time to describe every single photograph in their collection, but you can aim to describe the general contents of each box. When describing your archive as a whole, it helps to describe how many containers you have, the years it encompasses, and which family lines are represented.

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