Memories are an important part of all our lives. Old letters,
photographs, scrapbooks, the family bible,
and many other things help us to recall our past and the history
of our family and communities. All
of these things, however, are subject to decay and eventual
destruction if they are not cared for properly.
The information found here is designed to help individuals better
care for the things that preserve their memories. Press any of
the following buttons to obtain information on:
Many families preserve letters, diaries, or other written
documents in which family members discuss
their life and times. World War II fiftieth anniversary
remembrances have led many families to look for a relative's
carefully stored letters home from the European theater.
Other families have saved newspaper clippings of important
family events, such as the announcements of births, marriages,
or obituaries. The family bible can often be an heirloom handed
from one generation to the next. Often when the letters are
brought down from the attic or the clippings retrieved from
the back of the closet, family members are upset to see the
items are desintegrating.
Understanding the Problem
Since the 1860s all but the most expensive paper has been made
from wood pulp. Manufacturers used wood pulp because it was
much more plentiful and much less expensive than the cotton
fibers they had previously used. Thus manufacturers could sell
paper to consumers at a fraction of the former cost. However,
paper made of wood included chemicals that had not been found in
paper made in the earlier era. The most important change was the
introduction of acid. Acid is what causes paper to slowly turn
brown and become brittle. Eventually acidic paper will disintegrate
into small pieces of confetti.
Exactly how long it takes for a specific piece of paper to
self-destruct depends on the exact nature of
the chemicals used to make the product and the way in which paper
is stored. Newsprint is usually
the cheapest paper available and tends to be the first to decay.
Newspaper clippings can often show a
significant amount of aging in ten to twenty-five years. Other
paper will decay more slowly, but any
paper over fifty years of age may have developed significant
A second problem created by acid is acid migration. Acid
migration is a term used to explain the phenomena in which
acid from low quality paper tends to bleed out onto neighboring
pieces of paper. A typical example of acid migration occurs when
a newspaper clipping that had been enclosed with a letter is
allowed to remain in contact with it for many years. When the
letter is re-opened a brown stain in the outline of the clipping
has often discolored the paper on which the letter was written.
That stain is an example of acid migration. Acid migration not
only discolors paper, it increases the acidic content in the area
of the stain thus shortening the paper's lifespan.
The Enemies of Paper
The best way to minimize damage to your family records is to
properly store your papers away from four hazards that measurably
shorten paper's lifespan: heat, humidity, light, and careless
handling by people.
Heat speeds chemical reactions and causes paper to decay more
quickly. The rate of change is dramatic; doubling with every
ten degree (fahrenheit) increase in temperature. Humidity can also
destroy paper. Humidity does its harm in two ways. Humidity
levels above seventy percent promotes mold growth. Rapid changes
in humidity can also damage paper. Wide variations in humidity causes
paper to "cycle," expanding and contracting as water is drawn from
and goes back into the paper fibers. Bright light, particularly
sunlight and fluorescent light, can also injure records. Like heat,
ultra-violet radiation can speed chemical reactions that harm paper.
However, damage from light usually shows up first in ink which fades
and eventually disappears. Careless handling is probably the
most frequent cause of harm to paper. Particularly as paper
ages and becomes brittle, it will easily rip if it is not handled
Storing loose papers properly is an important step in preserving
your family records. Proper storage
can lengthen the useful life of any piece of paper. Some helpful
Store family papers in a cool, dry place, where the humidity
stays relatively constant. A
bedroom closet is often a good choice particularly if the bedroom
or the whole house, is air
conditioned. A room where the temperature remains between
sixty-five and seventy degrees fahrenheit
with a constant relative humidity of about forty-five percent is
an ideal environment. Uninsulated
attics or damp basements are very poor places to store valuable
Do not expose paper to bright light for extended periods of time.
If you feel strongly that you must
frame and display a particular document, mat it in acid-free
material, leave a small gap between the
item and the glass of the frame, and spend a few extra dollars to
purchase glass that filters out ultra-violet radiation. When
hanging the item avoid a location where direct sunlight from a
window or another source of light will reach it.
Do not store particularly bad pieces of paper touching higher
quality paper. If you desire to store
a poor quality piece of paper place it between two blank sheets
of high quality paper. Acid will
migrate into the blank paper, which can be thrown away, rather
than into family letters or other
Do store papers opened (not folded), and flat. Fold lines place
great stress on paper fiber. As
paper ages and becomes brittle folds are the place were paper
usually first cracks.
Paper Restoration - A Word of Caution
Over the years, professional conservators have developed a
sophisticated array of tools and techniques
that can be used to clean, restore and mend documents or books.
Successfully using these procedures,
however, frequently requires considerable skill, the use of toxic
chemicals, and some good luck.
Restoration of damaged paper is often expensive, frequently
risky, and sometimes doesn't work. In
most cases it should only be done by a professional conservator.
The best advice to most do-it-yourself restorers is to do nothing. Home
remedies often not only fail to fix
the problem but introduce new problems that are even more
difficult to fix. It is usually better to store
a partially damaged document under good conditions than to try to fix it without
professional help. Perhaps the most destructive "home remedy"
professional conservators face are
repairs done with self-adhesive tape.
Self-adhesive tape should never be used to repair torn or ripped
paper, or in an attempt to refasten torn
covers to a book. Most tape sticks for only five to ten years.
Eventually the tape fall offs, leaving
behind a tear or rip imbedded with a sticky adhesive mess that
discolors the paper. Even a trained
conservator, who could fix the rip or tear in a way that is
permanent, will find it difficult and probably
impossible, to remove the adhesive and the discoloration from the
Close behind tape in its destructive effect is the practice of
lamination. Lamination does not lengthen
the natural life of paper and its sticky plastic is virtually
impossible to remove. Lamination should not
be confused with the professional practice of "encapsulation."
Encapsuled documents are placed
between two sheets of inert plastic. However the "sandwich" that
is created is sealed only around the
edges, thus the document is not attached to the plastic in any
In general, the best advice for preserving your family papers is
to store papers opened, flat, and in a cool, dry place and to
restrain yourself and your family from attempting any kind of
home repairs to damaged items.
Paper Care - A Checklist
Always store paper records in a cool, dry place.
Do not store paper in uninsulated attics or damp basements.
Always store paper away from bright light.
If you choose to frame and display a paper item, always use glass
which filters out UV radiation in front
of the document.
Store papers opened, rather than folded, and flat.
Separate "bad" pieces of paper from other items by sandwiching
"bad" paper between two, blank sheets of quality paper.
Never put pressure sensitive tape on a document.
Never laminate a document.
aphs have long been used to capture family memories.
Every photographic process, however, is
subject to decay and self-destruction.
Understanding the Problem
Photographs employ a process in which a medium which has been
coated with various chemicals that react
to light is first exposed to a light source to "take" the picture
and then is processed using other chemicals
that fix and stabilize the image. The negative is then used to
create prints on paper that has been coated
with even more chemicals. Given the number of chemicals involved,
it should not be surprising that no photograph is completely stable. Although in the short run it is
insignificant, a small amount of sensitivity
to light is always present. Photographs can also react rapidly
and unpredictably in the presence of other
All photographs fade over time. Traditionally processed black
and white photographic prints may last
a century or more. Color photographs, because of the various
dyes used to create the color, are very
susceptible to color change and fading. In particular color
photos that are exhibited, may experience noticeable color change
after only ten to fifteen years. Polaroid or other "instant"
developing photographs are also likely to be chemically unstable
and as a result fade very quickly.
The Enemies of Photographs
raphs are vulnerable to the same enemies as is paper; heat,
humidity, light, and mishandling.
Because of their chemical nature, photographs also often react
negatively to the presence of other
chemicals. Even the oils from a person's hands, if left on a
photographic print or negative, can eventually
cause finger prints to become permanently embedded in the image.
Because photographic images are
found on light sensitive materials that cannot be made completely
stable, bright light is particularly
destructive to photographs.
Ideally, photographs should be stored in an extremely cool
environment, with color filming lasting longest
at a temperature of about forty degrees fahrenheit. Few people
are willing to go through the expense and
trouble of purchasing a refrigerator solely to store their film.
More practical suggestions include:
Store photographs in the coolest place in a home that is not
subject to high or rapid changes in
humidity. Avoid the basement of most homes.
Always handle photographic prints and particularly photographic
negatives by the edges. An even
better option, is to wear light gloves made of a lint free material while
handling photographic images.
Do not expose photographic prints or negatives to bright light
for extended periods of time unless the
negative from which the photograph was made can be found and is
properly stored. If a negative is not
available, a copy negative should be made prior to exhibiting the
Use high quality color negative film and paper to take and print
color photographs. After conducting
independent tests for long-term durability, Henry Wilhelm, in The Permanence and Care of Color
Photographs (1992) recommends among the negative film marketed
for the amateur market the use of
Fujicolor Super G 200, Konica Color Super SR 200 3M ScotchColor
200 Film or Polaroid OneFilm Color
Print Film (ISO 200) in the medium speed range (ISO 160-200).
Wilhelm's more surprising finding was that there was great
variability in the fading quality of the paper
upon which photos were printed. Fujicolor Super FA Type 3 and
Fujicolor SFA3 papers could be
exposed for fifty years without color fade.
By way of comparison Kokak's most popular papers began
to fade after slightly more than ten years. Wilhelm is, in fact,
critical of Kodak both for the company's
practice of refusing to release data regarding the longevity of
color prints printed on the firm's paper
(Wilhelm states other companies routinely release this data) and
for marketing papers to the public through
ads that "suggested that the Ektacolor prints of the time would
'last a lifetime'" while knowing that the
papers actually began to fade noticeably in less than a decade.
When interviewing professional
photographers who will take family photos at weddings or for
studio shots it is wise to inquire about the
kind of paper upon which they will print the photos.
Photographs: a Checklist
Store photographs in a cool place that is not subject to high
Store photographs away from bright light. If you choose to
display family photographs use UV filtering glass.
Always handle photographs by their edges. Better yet, wear
gloves when handling photographic items.
Select film with longevity in mind.
When employing a professional photographer ask that he or she
print photos on long-lived paper.
Treat color photographs as a temporary medium and assume you will
have to have them copied.
Over the last decade VCR tape has become a favorite way of
preserving memories. VCR tape, however,
is even more fragile than color photographs and thus individuals
who use it to store family remembrances
must take great care to use it with caution.
Understanding the Problem
VCR tape is created when metal oxides, lubricants, and
plasticizers are "bound" to a "base" of clear
polyester tape. This mix of chemicals serves a variety of
purposes. Metal oxide records the magnetic
impulses that are "read" by the VCR to recreate images on a
television screen. Plasticizers help keep the
film supple so it is less likely to break or stretch. Lubricants
serve a similar purpose by helping to keep
the tape moving smoothly through the mechanical transport system
that moves the film from one spool,
past the VCR "head," the device that "reads" the magnetic pulses
recorded on the metal oxide, and on to
the other spool.
Each of the component parts of the finished tape is subject to
unique problems and a failure of any one
of them can make the tape unplayable. Because the mix of
component parts is complex even the best
quality tape can begin to degrade quite quickly, often within a
year or two after its manufacturing. Even
under ideal conditions the binder that holds together this mix of
chemicals is very delicate and it is usually
quite easy to scrape off parts of the chemicals from the base.
For whatever reason as degradation occurs
the image that is played back on a television screen becomes
poorer and poorer, until it can no longer be
The Enemies of VCR Tape
VCR tape is subject to harm from a variety of sources. Just as
with paper and photographs heat can speed
the chemical reactions that cause the tape to fail and humidity
can encourage the growth of various
biological agents that can destroy the tape.
"Binder breakdown" is a frequent cause for tape failure. Like
all adhesive agents, as the binder ages it
begins to lose its "stick." As this happens microscopic pieces
of oxide as well as the other chemicals
imbedded in the binder slowly fall away. As each bit of oxide is
lost, a small piece of information is lost
creating various problems when the tape is played.
Because VCR tape can only be viewed by playing it through a
complicated mechanical device, a VCR,
it is also frequently damaged by mechanical problems within a
VCR. Dirt is the most frequent problem.
Dirt, even microscopic particles, if located in strategic spots
on the transport mechanism or VCR head can
cause continual scratching of the VCR tapes. Each scratch
scrapes off a bit more material from the
polyester tape base and each loss of material further degrades
Preserving VCR Tape
There is no long-term strategy for preserving VCR tape. It is
reasonable to expect that most VCR tape,
for one reason or another, will be unplayable after approximately
a decade. Within this short life-span,
however, it is possible to take steps that will keep the tape and
the images preserved on the tape, in better
condition, thus allowing for a higher quality copy of the tape to
eventually be made.
Practical suggestions for maintaining VCR tape in good condition
Buy name brand VCR tape. The chemicals used by various
manufacturers, quality control practices,
and other procedures vary dramatically between manufacturers,
with "no-name" tape usually being made
as cheaply as possible. Lacking good studies on the reliability
of various brands of VCR tape, a consumer
can at least fall back on the advice that you often get what you
pay for, and buying the cheapest tape
available is asking for preservation trouble.
Make a "preservation" copy of the VCR tape as soon as it is shot.
This can be done at home by
mating two VCRs or it can be done at many shops which do VCR
repairs. Check the preservation copy
once a year, but otherwise never play it. This "pristine" copy
will serve you well when the time comes
to copy the tape onto a new tape. Pull out a second, "user" copy
of the tape to show friends, neighbors,
and relatives. Although with each viewing the user copy will
slowly degrade, the images will be
preserved in the best possible state on the "preservation" copy.
VCR tape should be viewed and rewound annually. Annual viewing
makes it possible to detect
problems before they lead to the catastrophic failure of the
tape. Annual rewinding helps avoid a number
of problems that can occur as the tightly wound VCR tape rests up
Always use a clean, well-functioning VCR machine to play the
tape. Microscopic particles of dirt
can cause irreparable damage to the tape as it races past the VCR
head. Professional cleaning of a VCR
machine, including demagnetization of the head, is always a good
idea before the family tapes are pulled
out for their annual screening. It is particularly important to
make sure the VCR has recently been
serviced before playing the preservation copy of your tapes.
Assume VCR tape will have to be copied. The medium of tape is
very fragile and subject to a variety
of fatal harms. Plan on copying tape at least once every ten
VCR Tape: A Checklist
Buy name brand tape.
Make a "preservation" copy of family tapes that will be used for
View and rewind VCR tape annually in order to find image
degradation before significant tape failure occurs.
Play family tapes (particularly a preservation copy) through a
recently cleaned and adjusted VCR machine.
Assume VCR tape is a temporary medium and plan on regularly
copying the tape.
Many people assemble "memory books" to help them record the
history of themselves or their family.
Commonly these involve an artifact in a "book" format, often
8.5x11 or 11x14 inches in size. Pictures,
newspaper clippings, certificates, letters, tickets, souvenir
programs, and a host of other memorabilia find
their way into these books.
Understanding the Problem
Although memory books in the form of scrapbooks and photo albums
are sold in stores across the country
and used by thousands of people to preserve their family history,
most memory books represent a witch's
brew of problems that cause professional conservators to despair.
The three most important problems found in scrapbooks are the
material out of which they are made, the material used
to fasten items into the scrapbook, and the mix of material
placed in the book.
Most commercially purchased photo albums or scrapbooks are made
of the most inexpensive paper
available and thus have extremely high levels of acid. As a
result not only with the scrapbook pages become brittle quite
quickly but the acid from the poor paper will migrate into the
family material placed in the scrapbook, shortening your the life
of those items.
Most commercial scrapbooks are also bound together quite tightly.
This tightness can cause significant problems as you add material
to the pages often doubling or tripling the books original
thickness. The growing thickness of the book causes the book to
bulge and puts great strain on the binding. A binding
under this type of stress will usually break very quickly.
Family papers have to somehow be fastened into the scrapbook.
Most often this is done with some form
of glue that is either purchased separately or has been imbedded
onto the pages of the scrapbook by the manufacturer. In either
case, after many years the glue loses its ability to bind
materials together but leaves behind a permanent sticky residue
that discolors and acidifies the material placed in the
The mix of material placed in a scrapbook can also cause
problems. Photographs, highly acidic newspaper
clippings, and other items often create peculiar chemical mixes
that can cause unpredictable results.
Preserving Memory Books
The soundest advice regarding memory books is that you avoid
them. Storing family history material separately is almost
always better in the long run than trying to group the material
together in a single volume. However, if you would like to
create a memory book some practical suggestions include:
Do not use scrapbooks or photo albums found in department or
discount stores. Rather purchase photo albums and memory books
from catalog suppliers that sell archival quality products. A
list of suppliers is included at the end of this document.
Archival quality memory books, however, will cost at
least two to three times the price of those sold in discount
Do not use glue. Although a few archival quality (non-acidic,
non-staining) glues are sold, there is no
consistent labelling that tells the average consumer what mix of
chemicals are contained in glue, nor can
past tests of commercial glues be relied on since manufacturers
are known to change their formulas
without warning. Rather purchase chemically inert, mylar photo
holders and insert items in these. These
often come in sheets which have a variety of pocket sizes and are
designed for insertion into a three ring
Segregate material by type. Do not place newspaper clippings,
letters, and photos all in the same pocket.
Rather put each in its own pocket, using the plastic sheets to
buffer one item from the other.
Store large scrapbooks flat rather than on end.
Use three-ring binders as an alternative to bound memory books.
Three ring binders allow adequate room for the materials placed
in the memory book. Binders neither crush the material nor do
they have bindings that can be stressed and break. Many archival
suppliers make available binders with attractive cloth covers
that look very much like a bound volume.
Label items. Among the most frustrating experience of a family
historian is to come upon great-aunt Lydia's photo album only to
discover that none of the pictures are labelled. Great-aunt
Lydia died in 1966 and today no one can identify the people in
the photographs she carefully guarded. Always take the time
to explain in writing the items in a memory book. Note who are
in the pictures, as well as when and where the photos were taken.
If letters are included that are not self-explanatory, for
example "Lou" writing to "My Sweetest," write down who Lou and
his sweetheart were. Among the goals of anyone who
creates a memory book should be to bequeath useful information,
not frustrating puzzles, to future family members.
Memory Books - a Checklist
Avoid scrapbooks or photo albums sold at most retail outlets
Purchase scrapbooks or photo albums from archival supply catalogs
Do not use glue or pressure sensitive tape in your scrapbook.
Mylar envelopes usually are the best way to store scrapbook
Segregate material by type.
Label material. For photographs include the full names of the
individuals, and the date and place the photo was taken.
Store memory books flat rather than on edge.
Three ring binders are a useful substitute for bound memory
No matter how well anything is stored eventually the item will
degrade to the point where it is either prohibitively expensive
to repair it or where repair is no longer possible. When this
point is reached copying is the only practical way to preserve
the material into the future.
A Word of Caution
Although modern copying technology can preserve items otherwise
destined to be lost, most copying technologies do not reproduce
the original item with total accuracy. Small amounts of clarity
are lost each time an image is copied. This loss of clarity
becomes more pronounced over generations of copies, as
anyone can attest who has photocopied a copy of a copy and then
compared it to the original. Digital technology can create an
exact duplicate of the original, however because digital
technology is stored in electro-magnetic media, like VCR tape it
is susceptible to the very rapid decay.
Some practical suggestions
Despite its limitations, copying is the only practical way to
preserve many items. If you are considering
copying material some ideas to keep in mind include:
Paper items can be either photographed or copied using a
photocopier. The image placed on paper
by a photocopier is very stable, however, care should be taken to
place the image on good-quality paper.
Acid-free paper is best, and a high quality bond paper is a good second
choice. Paper marketed as "photocopier
paper" and loaded into most coin operated photocopiers is usually
of poor quality.
When photographic copies of documents or photographs are made
care should be taken to select a photographer experienced in copy
work. Copy photography is as much an art as a science, and an
experienced hand can often obtain a better copy image.
Contemporary color photographs of important family events, such
as wedding photographs, will probably need to be copied about
twenty-five years after they are taken in order to preserve their
original color hues.
Contemporary VCR tapes of important family events will probably
need to be copied about ten years after they are taken. If you
have important family images on VCR tape you should pay
particular attention to changing technology. No one wants to
discover that their family tapes can be shown only on
the last Betamax machine in America.
Material that has been glued in scrapbooks is very difficult to
copy. Usually the only solution is to destroy the scrapbook in
order to make good copies of the items found within the volume.
Although these are not the only vendors of archival material,
these will mail catalogs upon request and offer supplies in small
P.O. Box 940
Rochester, NY 14607-3717
P.O. Box 101
Holyoke, MA 01041-0101
8000-H Forbes Place
Springfield, VA 22151