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Preserving Personal Papers and Photographs: General Guidelines
The preservation staff of the Arizona State Archives recently received a
call from a woman who had become the "family historian" after her
aunt's death. She was determined to do a better job than her aunt who had
kept everything in a couple of shoe boxes, so she purchased albums with special
pages in which she could organize the materials and then reposition them
in case she changed her mind. A few months later she discovered that all
the papers and pictures had become securely stuck to the pages.
Of all the things that a person can do to preserve papers and photographs,
providing a good environment is the single most important. Such an environment
includes a moderate temperature and relative humidity. Extreme variations
in either can cause mold growth, cracks in pictures, premature aging and
other damage. Although 68° F. and 50% relative humidity are frequently cited
as being close to ideal, stability plays a major role in long-term preservation,
so it is better to have a stable temperature of perhaps 78° and a relative
humidity of 30% than wild variations in either.
Another environmental factor to consider is light. All light damages paper
and photographs to some degree, so they should be stored in a dark or dimly
lit area if possible. Direct sunlight on valued materials must be avoided,
because it causes severe damage very quickly, as witnessed by a newspaper
that is left outside for only one day.
Air quality is a third factor to consider. Air pollution, especially in
large cities, contains many gases that combine with water to form acids that
eat everything from paper to bronze statues. By properly maintaining air
conditioning filters and regularly cleaning materials with non-oily dust
cloths, much of this type of damage can be avoided.
Creating and maintaining a good climate for an entire house can be difficult
and expensive. Interior closets, those located away from the outside walls
of the building, tend to provide an environment which more stable. If they
are kept shut, fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity will be
reduced, and the interior will be dark and less dusty.
Storage materials and handling also play key roles in preservation. Common
cardboard boxes and file folders usually contain acids that contaminate historical
materials, so they should be avoided. Several companies provide a wide variety
of safe boxes and enclosures for both paper and photographs, and a modest
investment in proper storage will add considerably to the expected life of
Ideally, family treasures should never be handled, but that is usually an
unacceptable option. Natural oils on hands transfer to documents and leave
oily spots. To prevent this, at the very least hands should be thoroughly
cleaned before working with papers. The same oils do irreparable damage to
pictures, so inexpensive gloves available at photo stores should be worn
when handling either prints or negatives. If materials are to be handled
frequently, photocopies of papers and duplicates of photographs will save
the originals from being inadvertently damaged.
The preservation staff at the Arizona State Archives provides free consultations
and referrals on preservation topics and is also available for workshops
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