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How to Care for Heirloom Papers, Photos, and Books


Family papers, sentimental pictures, and favorite books should be preserved for posterity

You may wonder how to preserve such treasured items as the family Bible, old photographs, and important historical documentation. Here are a few basic tips that will help keep these keepsakes from deteriorating.

Important papers and treasures should be kept in a dark, cool, and dry spot. Place them in an approved container - one that is covered and deemed "acid-free" or of archival quality. These containers will not last forever and should be replaced about every seven years or so. Look for containers that are labeled "alkaline buffered" and "lignin free" for best results.

Beware, however, that even those containers may not guarantee perfect preservation; there are no standards that regulate the degree of protection for important papers.

Before you put things away, remove rubber bands, paper clips and staples. Lay all papers flat for storage as folding will break down the material. Do not use tape to repair tears; leave them alone. Some inks simply will not stand up to the test of time, but do not even think about laminating important papers. Over time, this has proven to be an irreversible process that eventually breaks down.

Not all products require the same level of care. Black-and-white photos need different treatment from color pictures and leather will react to different stimuli than paper. Some inks will fade or disappear. Glues in book bindings will be attractive to some insects and even rodents.

Black-and-white photos last practically forever in comparison to color pictures. Even under the best of circumstances a color photo may last only 35 years. One solution is to photograph and scan or scan directly and index on a CD or DVD. Photos that you want to keep can be scanned at black-and-white resolution and printed on an approved paper. You can transfer old photos to acid-free albums or store them individually in paper sleeves. Mylar sleeves are also available but are quite expensive.

Avoid handling materials as much as possible and when you do, wear clean cotton gloves. Body oils are another cause of staining and disintegrating paper. If excessive handling is required, place papers in plastic sleeves. These will over time react with the paper, but may be less invasive than improper handling. You can also purchase "permanent" paper and transfer (by photographing, scanning, or copying) valuable information.

Try to store like materials together to avoid reactions among them. Check all your keepsakes periodically for signs of mildew and mold. Try to avoid - or limit - making photocopies as the lights will further break down the fibers in paper.

Once you decide to begin the preservation process, understand that it will take time to stash treasures properly. Indexing is also time consuming. However, the fact that these items may be around for another few decades should give you the incentive to start now.


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Pittsburg, TX 75686
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