Taking care of your family archives

This article is intended to provide simple and practical guidance to anyone who is looking after their family heritage. The articles will cover, for example, what family archives are, what to keep, taking care of the physical condition of the archives, how to package and store the archives, organising the archives, compiling an inventory or list, managing the digital archives, digitising family archives, managing your family archives project and advice on next steps to take.

Many people hold on to at least some records throughout their lives, but few keep the records in such a condition that would ensure their survival into the future. The interest in genealogy and family history research has grown rapidly recently and with that, a need to preserve records of the past.

In order to preserve your family heritage it is necessary to know what family archives are and which are essential records to tell your family’s story.

1 What are family archives?

Family papers are those things that we have saved because they mean something to us, they are our treasures and they tell us something about ourselves, our families and our friends: how we've lived our lives and what we value most.

These collections may include books (such as Bibles or history books), diaries or journals, loose documents (such as birth, death or marriage certificates), financial records, legal documents, deeds, letters, cards, postcards, house plans, school reports, exam or awards certificates, family cookbooks or recipe cards (especially handwritten books or cards), newspaper cuttings, photographs, tickets from events and shows, and maps and medals.

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2 What to keep

At this stage you consider your reasons for preserving your family heritage. If your goal is to preserve the archives for future generations, you have to ensure that the records you keep can be managed effectively and you have enough space to store your archives. This will mean gathering together all your family records which are buried or tucked away in closets, drawers, attics, and garages. It does not matter if you have one small box or 10 big boxes, just combine all the records together in one place.

At this point, you are now ready to assess what you own. This isn’t a detailed assessment, but rather a chance (and for some this may be the first time) to see all of your family papers in one place.

Selecting specific records for preservation takes careful consideration as unfortunately, you can’t preserve everything. Consider saving those family papers that contain information that is unique, significant and in the most concise form. While this varies among families, examples of such papers include letters, diaries, photographs, and legal documents such as deeds.

At the same time, determine whether there are any surplus records that can be removed or even destroyed. While sorting your archives, ask yourself: Is this item worth the time and the cost of archival storage supplies to be part of my archives?

A suggestion is to roughly sort the paper records into categories. It is easier to evaluate, list and store records that are the same type or format, i.e. letters, diaries, address books, photographs, etc. Once the records have been categorised, you will have an idea of which of the categories contain vital information and which do not warrant permanent preservation.

The purpose of the selection process is to secure an appropriate documentary reflection of the time and environment in which the records were created. You will have to select the records which provide the best, the richest, most focused evidence of their time. Some people find this an easier process than others.

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The paper records that most people possess and that in my opinion should be preserved are:

Bibles, family history books, diaries or journals, birth, death and marriage certificates, identification documents, passports, wills, divorce papers, driver’s licences, letters, cards, postcards, house plans and deeds, school reports and newsletters, exam or awards certificates, newspaper cuttings, address books, birthday books or calendars, church newsletters, children’s health cards, documents relating to work and retirement, photographs, concert programmes, event and show tickets, membership newsletters (professional and related to hobbies) and maps.

The following additional paper records are not essential records, but I would advise that you do not destroy them immediately:

Salary slips, membership newsletters (shops, banks, etc.), motor vehicle registrations and licences, receipts, medical aid statements and claims, bank statements, bank books, cheques, deposit and withdrawal slips, municipal accounts, cell phone accounts, long and short term insurance policies (already paid out or expired), details of expired loans, etc.

The problem with these additional records is that they accumulate very quickly and you have to consider whether to give your full attention and resources to these rather than more valuable records. If you want to keep examples of these records a suggestion is to keep one monthly statement each year or one or two receipts every month to show how prices changed through the years, or one salary slip a year to show how salaries changed. Remember that your primary goal is to preserve your family history archives.

There are certain financial records that you will legally have to keep for a few years, but if there are just a small amount I would perhaps consider keeping them longer, i.e. investments, shares, income tax documents, etc

It can be hard to let go of anything that might carry a family story, no matter how old or broken that keepsake might be. You have to think through this carefully before making a decision, because if you destroy them, you cannot get them back and most of them will be irreplaceable.

3 Taking care of the physical condition of the archives

You already know what family archives are and what you want to preserve forever. You also know how to start sorting your paper records into categories. The next step should be to finish sorting in order to compile an inventory, however, it is also essential to properly care for the records before packing them in storage containers.

Taking proper care of these precious archives will enable future generations to use and enjoy the records of their heritage. Preserving them can be achieved in a variety of ways. There are basic preventative measures which anyone can employ to help extend the life of their collection. The only way to do this is by systematically work through the records to perform basic preservation tasks.

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It is important to carefully remove all damaging fasteners such as staples, paper clips and pins and replace them, only if absolutely needed, with non-rusting ones. Rust residue can be brushed off with a soft brush, but be careful that you don’t damage the paper even further.

Archives should be cleaned prior to packaging. This will significantly extend their useful life. Hold the volume firmly closed and wipe with a cloth. A magnetic wiping cloth is preferable, since it does not contain chemicals or other substances that could be left behind. If loose dust or dirt is present, use a very soft, wide brush (e.g. a haké type brush which is available at art supply shops) to gently brush it away. A soft brush is always handy when you work with records. If archives are covered with a heavy layer of dust, vacuuming may be advisable, but only use vacuum cleaners that have been approved for cleaning archives which come with a soft brush attachment. Other vacuum cleaners may damage your books and could suck pieces of your paper in.

Letters that are folded in envelopes should be removed from the envelopes and unfolded. The creases made by folding and unfolding paper records can cause damage and eventually those creases get weak and can cause records to tear into pieces. Do not press or force the pages flat. Gently fold back any creased corners.

If your records are infested with insects, isolate these items so that the insects don’t spread. Insects can be difficult to eradicate. Consider the value of the item and if it can be replaced by, for example, a mass market book. Alternatively you could make a copy of the specific page(s). Consult a conservator about valuable or sentimental items that are infested with pests.

One of the biggest threats and challenges is mouldy records. Mould can be a health hazard to people, so limit handling mouldy items. Remove the source of water or high humidity to stop mould growing. Replace the item or make a copy of the item. Consult a conservator to treat valuable or sentimental items. An experienced conservator will treat the mouldy items by placing them in Ziploc bags in a freezer to kill the mould. When the mould is dry the mould can be brushed off every page. Work outside on a sunny windless day (since it is hazardous to your health and you don’t want mould spreading throughout your home) wearing protective gear (N100 dust masks, some nitrile gloves, and an inexpensive soft-bristled paintbrush or two). The cleaned materials should be safe to handle if you brush off every page. Once cleaned store these items in an environment where the humidity does not get above 60%. It is possible to get rid of the mould, but do not treat them without the advice or assistance of a conservator.

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If your photographs are stored in the old "magic" photo albums with sticky pages (of the 1970s and 1980s) it is better to remove them from these albums. Not only does the adhesive in these albums become very sticky over time making it difficult to remove the photos, the adhesive can also turn brown and stain the back of the photo and the acetate covers of the earlier albums can shrink and expose the photos to dust. If the photos are difficult to get out of the album, you can remove them carefully with un-waxed dental floss.

The problem with fading ink is that it is difficult to bring it back. You can create a high-quality digital image and then manipulate the photo to enhance the writing. The original document can be safely stored so the ink doesn't continue to fade. Unfortunately, there is no way to restore the ink on the original document.

There is no safe and easy way to remove tape from your documents unless you work with a conservator. The tape's adhesive will often be stronger than the underlying paper so trying to remove it will most likely damage it beyond repair. The best thing to do is to get a good quality scan so you don't lose the information and then simply protect the item as well as you can. As the tape ages, the adhesive will dry up and the tape itself will fall off but the adhesive will remain.

Older documents and photographs sometimes turn yellow and unfortunately there is little that can be done to reverse the yellowing. The best approach is to have the photograph scanned and digitally retouched. You can then have the photo printed out to whatever size you would like and safely store the original.

Stains on records are very difficult to reduce or remove without doing irreparable damage even for professional conservators. The best approach would be to have the photograph scanned and digitally retouched. You can then print the photo and safely store the original.

Labels, barcodes, and "protective" tape coverings on documents are difficult to remove and since it is a very tricky process, one should leave it to a conservator. Removing tape simply leaves a sticky residue which will attract dust and cause additional damage. There is no product to remove the residue safely without causing even more damage.

Torn papers can be repaired by a professional conservator. Until that is possible, carefully store the pieces together in a plastic sleeve where you can still read the information.

The best solution for most of your basic preservation needs is to clean the items with a soft brush and to either make photocopies of the items or scan them so the original record can be safely stored in archival-quality sleeves.

These are just a few basic preventative preservation duties to extend the useful life of your archives, but there are many more. The two basic rules are to read more about preventative care and to consult a professional conservator to perform detailed treatments when necessary.

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