Storing your physical or digital archive
Once you’ve gone to the effort of collecting your archive together or creating digital files you need to be able to store them safely for the future.
Your archive may include letters, tickets, old photographs, family certificates and such like.
Storing your paper archive for ever can be a problem due to acid. Paper is made from cellulose. Until the late 19th century, this was sourced from linen or cotton rags. With the industrial revolution came new methods of making paper from woodpulp, which proved a very cheap solution for everyday short-life items like newspapers, magazines or writing paper.
You cannot make strong paper out of woodpulp since its fibres are short unlike cotton or linen, and it contains lignen.
Chemicals are added to the woodpulp to make paper strong enough for a short lifespan. These chemicals degrade quickly turning acidic and breaking the cellulose fibres. This process yellows the paper and releases smell, think old paperbacks!
Your archive is bound to contain woodpulp paper, so here’s some tips on how to preserve it best…
- Sticky Tape
- Location, Location, Location
Keeping your family archive absolutely pristine would mean having to lock them away in cold dark storage for ever and never handle them. Not user friendly!
Damage from handling
The natural oils on our skin can be transferred onto porous paper surfaces and turn acidic. A well used book will often have dark fragile edges and fingerprints are especially problematic for some old photographs.
When handling it’s best to have clean hands or gloves if you are careful with handling.
Light permanently damages colour and cause the paper to age more quickly, turning it yellow and more acidic.
Avoid light by not displaying your most treasured archives – it’s best to make a copy for framing.
Avoid sticky tape repairs
If an item in your archive is torn then don’t repair it with Sellotape – tape is very bad in the long term as the tape degrades in three stages – from gooey to yellow to crispy. The tape glue ends up an opaque toffee coloured stuck to the paper fibres and is acidic eventually turning the paper see-through and eventually cracking and breaking away.
Also avoid ‘Archival’ document tapes and glues as they are not always fit for purpose. If something needs repairing you are best consulting an expert conservator.
Always put your family archives in boxes to help preserve them. A box stops dust collecting on your paper and sticking to your documents or photographs. Ideally a permanent storage box will be acid and lignin free and with an alkaline buffer. Normal cardboard boxes are made from woodpulp that turns acidic quickly, which helps your paper archive absorb acid and speeding up its degradation. Source specialist boxes and archival card folders on the internet.
If your box is too big then the documents and prints will slouch and crease. A box which is too small will cramp and pressure your documents and may stick them together. Watch edges sticking out or they’ll quickly get tattered, torn and will fall apart. Organise your archive by size. Unfold sheets if you can. Remove paper clips, Post-its, rubber bands, twine and staples you find from the paper if you can.
Plastics sleeves are great for storing single sheets of paper but you need to make sure you select the right kind of plastic. PVC degrades very quickly and turns acidic degrading your documents. Commercial stationery plastic sleeves also contain plasticisers which degrade the documents inside.
Non-woven polyester (Mylar and Melinex) is a see-through ‘good’ plastic and will not degrade. It is used for storing printed papers with the static keeping tears in place, and the polyester will prevent acids transferring from one paper to another by providing a barrier. Don’t use it to store fragile photographs, prints or drawings!
Once you boxed everything you need to find your archive a permanent place. Paper, being sensitive to ambient temperature and relative humidity, needs a location that’s consistently cool, dry and away from direct sunlight or heat sources.
Water can seriously damage paper collections, and damp places can cause mould to break out. Sheds, attics or cellars are not good places to home your archive.
All digital files need to be archived and kept backed up outside of your home in case of theft or fire. Cloud backup is the best solution as once set up works like clockwork. A dedicated folder for back-up can be used where your archive files a watched and back up when changed.
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