Preserving Family Treasures


Paper Composition

1. Paper Composition


If you held in your hand today a letter written by Benjamin Franklin, or perhaps a receipt signed by his wife or someone in his print shop, and compared it to a letter you or your parents wrote forty years ago, you would be surprised to discover that the two hundred year old documents are in better condition than the more recent ones. Why? “Old” paper was made from good fibers, held together by good sizing, written upon by good ink. But after about the mid-nineteenth century in America paper was mass-produced, the use of wood pulp was substituted for better quality rag, and the writing inks were poorer. Thus “modern” paper (unless specially purchased) is composed of bad ingredients and is full of acidic compounds that begin destroying the fibers soon after manufacture. Depending on how it is stored, many experts agree that most modern paper has a useful life of only 50 to 75 years.


If you are creating scrapbooks, albums, or collections of family memorabilia that you want your children or grandchildren to preserve and treasure:

  • Buy acid free, lignin free, alkaline reserve (or buffered) paper, folders, storage boxes and containers.

If you find old letters crumbling, scrapbooks and photo albums falling apart, then:

  • “Encapsulate” or folder letters and pages, in good quality plastic sleeves.
  • If the album or scrapbook is not a family heirloom or artifact (e.g. one that you began not long ago, but which is now falling apart or, you suspect after reading this, is not “archival” in nature) re-mount everything in a good quality album or scrapbook.

What about important memorabilia being created today (letters & documents, like your child’s or grandchild’s first writings, drawings, etc.)?

  • Use an archivist’s Ph pen to test for acid in paper.
  • If acidic, have a conservator deacidify, or use deacidification spray solutions, for example commercial products like Wei To’ or Bookeeper sprays (but remember, always test for ink solubility, and use in well-ventilated area).
  • “Encapsulate” items in plastic.

The Environment: Temperature & Humidity

2. The Environment: Temperature & Humidity


At higher temperatures and humidity, especially above 70 degrees F and 50-60% relative humidity, harmful chemical reactions within the paper itself speed up, and family treasures deteriorate that much faster. Every 18 degree increase in temperature doubles chemical activity. Furthermore, wide swings in humidity and temperature are very harmful to hygroscopic material (those that are composed of water, especially paper, textiles, etc.) which expand and contract with their environment.


  • Monitor humidity with hygrometer, or Ph cards & strips.
  • Keep items out of damp basements, hot attics; store in living spaces of house, away from damp walls or closets; don’t hang framed items over radiators, heating ducts, fireplaces.
  • Cold storage is ideal, but generally not realistic. Temps around +/- 70 degrees F, with relative humidity at/below 50%, is a realistic goal.
  • Storing items in acid free boxes & folders gives “layering” protection against wide swings in the environment outside the folder and storage box.
  • Use desiccants (Damp Rid, silica gel canisters, etc.) to control humidity inside drawers, boxes, closets, etc.

The Environment: Light

3. The Environment: Light


All matter is slowly deteriorating, but exposure to light — the portion of the energy spectrum we can see — speeds up the photochemical processes of deterioration. Ultraviolet radiation –prevalent in sunlight, fluorescent bulbs, tungsten-halogen (i.e. “quartz lights,” “sun lamps”), and northern skylight — is the most readily damaging light source. It is also important to know that light damage is cumulative, and the item fades or deteriorates a little more each time it is exposed to harmful light again. In other words, an item is not “rejuvenated” by removing it from harmful light, and re-storing it in the dark.


  • The least harmful illumination for displaying memorabilia is 5 footcandles for paper & textiles (this equals, roughly, the output of 150 watt reading bulb, at a distance of 3-4 ft.). Less sensitive items, e.g. paintings, ivory, bone, etc., can take levels of 20 foot-candles or so.
  • Reduce levels and times of exposure: keep items away from windows, close curtains, blinds, etc. when possible.
  • Filter light: buy special UV inhibiting lamp sleeves, plastic sheets, Plexiglas, window shades, etc.
  • Use incandescent light whenever possible, or purchase special low UV emmission flourescent bulbs.

The Environment: Mold

4. The Environment: Mold


Above 65-70% relative humidity mold begins to grow, first as a fine white fluff, then forming furry, round patches (can be black, purple, red/brown).


  • Monitor and prevent: examine items periodically, measure relative humidity; don’t use damp basements for storage; don’t store directly on floor (air circulation discourages mold, even in too-damp environments); avoid storing in closed houses (i.e. vacation homes) for lengthy periods; use desiccants (Damp Rid, silica gel canisters) in confined storage areas. Reduce Rh slowly, rapid drying damages objects, especially wood.
  • DO NOT: simply raise room temp., this can stimulate growth of existing mold; don’t brush mold off in the storage area, as it will spread mold spores.
  • DO: Improve ventilation with fans, remove moldy items to open air or airy room, and brush mold off there; sun/dry bound vols. (standing open) & flat items (on wire racks).
  • If “foxing” — the small rusty patches, or spots, found on pages, prints, etc., caused by chemical action of mold on colorless iron salts present in most papers — is detected: Check for mold, remove and dry (as above); if valuable, have trained paper conservator treat paper, removing foxing by bleaching process.

Adhesives & Fasteners

5. Adhesives & Fasteners


Pressure-sensitive tapes (“scotch,” “Magic mending,” masking, etc.) and rubber cement, used to repair and mend broken and torn pages and items, or glue items in, or back into, albums or scrapbooks, is unsuitable for preserving treasures:

  • Pressure sensitive tape leaves permanent stains, requires solvents to remove; rubber cement loses adhesion in time, is very unstable, & also leaves stains.

Paper clips, staples, brads, rubber bands, and other such fasteners rust or deteriorate, particularly in poor environments. They stain items and often cause damage when being removed.


  • Do not use pressure sensitive products to repair paper, or to mount material in albums or scrapbooks.
  • Use instead: cooked rice or wheat starch paste, prepared ethulose or methyl cellulose paste; specially formulated, ready-to-use, neutral pastes and glues. There are acid-free document repair tapes (Filmoplast) available that are much better than “scotch tape,” though questioned by some conservators.
  • Other mounting techniques are described below.
  • Use stainless steel or plastic clips; avoid rubber bands for long-term use.


6. Insects


Insects, rodents and pests feed on cellulose and other organic substances found in family treasures: paste, glue, sizing, leather, and book-cloth. They prefer warm, damp, dark environments.


  • Common sense here: regular cleaning, inspecting dark spaces, behind and beneath bookcases, boxes, picture frames. Fumigate with retail insecticides — not directly on material — or hire professional exterminators.


7. People


Lack of awareness of the value of family material; “leaving it until later” or to indifferent children or relatives to be cared for; feeling that such material has little value, either to the family or community. Benign ignorance, leading to improper care, or repairs of material & careless or rough handling of brittle paper, fragile or oversized items.


  • Raise your consciousness, also support libraries, historical organizations, museums, etc. whose mission, in part, is to help the community preserve its memories.
  • Understand the importance of such material. The “everyday lives of everyday people” will always need documenting.
  • Look before leaping, know what you are doing, if you don’t know or are not certain, then don’t do it. Leave the restoration of items to qualified conservators.


Relaxing and Flattening Folded or Rolled Documents

1. Relaxing and Flattening Folded or Rolled Documents

Paper documents and photographs that have been tightly rolled or folded for many years should not be forced open. They must be humidified first, then flattened under weights and between blotting paper. Humidification reintroduces moisture into the fibers, permitting flexing without breaking.

HUMIDIFICATION CHAMBERS: These can be made from new plastic trash containers: smaller ones (10 or 20 gallon size) resting inside larger ones (32 to 40 gallon), in which case the documents are placed in smaller container; or use a single plastic container, with the material to be humidified resting above the water-line on a plastic crate, basket, or some other type of non-rusting platform.

  • Before humidifying remove paper clips & fasteners if at all possible, since they may rust, corrode, etc.
  • Fill bottom of container with about 2 inches of water, close the lid tightly (put no lid on smaller inside container, if two are used).
  • Blotting paper may be placed, standing in the water on end, beside smaller inner container (in between the large and smaller containers). This helps distribute moisture upward.
  • Check after several hours, for flexibility, and for mold growth.
  • If documents are to be in 70 degree F chamber more than a day add mold inhibitor to the water, and wipe it along container walls. One teaspoon of o-phenyl phenol dissolved in 3 tablespoons of ethyl alcohol is recommended. (0-phenyl phenol is active ingredient in Lysol.)
  • Variations on this procedure could be numerous: use smaller plastic trays or pans; adapt an old refrigerator (unplugged) as a chamber, etc.. Be creative!

FLATTENING: After removing from chamber, items should be opened or unrolled carefully and placed between blotting paper (or good quality paper towels) on a flat surface.

  • Several such “sandwiches” can be stacked together — if similar in size — and placed under weights.
  • Change blotting paper periodically to speed drying.
  • Use 1/4 in. plate glass (with well-sanded edges), or larger plywood boards, to distribute weight evenly. If more weight is needed use large books, or bricks covered with cloth.
  • An alternate method, especially for folded or rolled documents that can be opened without damage, is to gently unfold and moisten the back of each page with a damp — not wet — cloth or sponge (if writing is on back, test first to see if it “runs” when moist, if so, humidify in a chamber). Then place under blotting paper and weights.
    • A variation on this method is to first moisten, but not wet, the blotting paper, then place unfolded documents between these moist sheets, changing to dry blotting paper when pages are relaxed. (ALWAYS test for ink solubility, by using a small brush to place a small drop of water on the ink, and then blotting it up and checking to see if any of the ink ran. If it did, do not place water directly on the paper.)

Surface Cleaning of Documents

2. Surface Cleaning of Documents

You can do some surface cleaning of documents, instead of having to call a conservator.

Do Not, however, try to clean heavily coated paper (glossy or slick-to-the-touch type), which is difficult to clean without leaving streak marks, and

Do Not clean brittle papers, or those containing pastels, pencil, charcoal, or watercolor. Works of art on paper should be sent to a paper conservator. Photographs should also not be cleaned, except for the paper board they are mounted on.


  • Always begin with the least abrasive dry cleaning methods, working toward stronger ones.
  • Do not attempt wet cleaning methods (see a conservator) for this could set the dirt permanently in the paper.
    1. Use a soft brush, or cloth, to remove dust and loose dirt.
    2. Then sprinkle crumbled eraser particles (Opaline cleaner, Skum-X, document cleaning pads) on the page and brush off.
    3. Next, sprinkle on new cleaning powder, working particles across the page with clean fingers (use of a Magic Rub block eraser instead of fingers can be less tiring).

Boxing, Foldering and Storage

3. Boxing, Foldering and Storage

Using appropriate boxes, folders, etc. is very important in preserving your family treasures. The acid in poor quality paper, like that found in cardboard boxes, regular manila folders, envelopes, etc. (see “Paper” above, under “Common Enemies…”) will move or “migrate” from these storage containers into your documents, speeding up their deterioration (under normal or poor environmental conditions). The acid in your documents can also migrate in the other direction, into the folders and boxes they are in. Thus — because of this dual migration — it is very possible to purchase “acid free” paper that, over time, will be consumed itself by acid. For this reason conservators recommend the use of buffered, or alkaline reserve, papers. Buffering agents within the paper give added protection against this migrating acid. “Lignin free” paper products are more expensive still, but better, because it is the lignin in natural wood and wood pulp that contains most of the acid.


  • Buy lignin free, alkaline reserve or buffered, papers.
  • Check the catalogues of archival supply dealers, and purchase an inexpensive “archivist’s Ph pen” for quick checks of acid level (these pens leave a permanent mark on the paper, so you generally do not want to use them on valuable documents.


  • Paper: Same quality as above, with one exception. Some 19th c. photographs may be harmed by alkaline buffered folders/paper, so many archivists use non-buffered folders for 19th century photographs.
  • Plastic: An excellent folder material for paper documents and photographs is good quality, inert plastic: e.g. “Mylar” (a DuPont tradename), polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene.
    • Buy in large rolls, or buy as ready-made folders, in various sizes. Some sizes are known or labeled “sheet protectors,” and they often come with black paper inserts. These are often acidic and should be tossed.
    • Do Not use cheap plastic folders or sleeves, such as those made from polyvinylchloride. These often have a “plastic” smell, are not inert, and they readily degrade on exposure to heat and light, emitting plasticizers and harmful gases that cause damage.


  • Never use raw, wooden shelves. The lignin, pitch, resin, and peroxides in the wood can leach out, causing damage to books and paper. Wood should be coated with two or three coats of polyurethane and allowed to dry, or cure, for a week or two.
  • An alternative is to line wood shelves with heavy (5-mil) polyester, which can be purchased economically in large rolls.

Polyester Encapsulation

4. Polyester Encapsulation

TRADITIONALLY: To “encapsulate” documents has generally meant to place them between two sheets of inert plastic, cut to size, held together by the use of Scotch #415 double faced tape that has been applied about 1/4 of an inch from each side of the document. The sealed edges, and static cling generated by the two sheets of plastic, produce a “sandwich” that is very stable and protective. It is usually advised that documents be deacidified before encapsulation but this is not required.

This technique is not the same as “lamination,” in which plastic with adhesive applied to it, it used to create a “sandwich” encasing a document. This lamination film can be useful for non-important items (like signs, etc.) but should never be used for important, family documents.

VARIATION: Easier, though more costly, than creating folders out of rolls of mylar/plastic.

  • Buy ready-made plastic folders of the correct size, and simply insert the documents into them.
  • Then, seal the edges with #415 tape, or leave unsealed, placing encased document in a paper folder or three-ring binder.

Mounting and Matting

5. Mounting and Matting

MOUNTING: There are many safe, or safer, methods of mounting material to boards, on paper, into scrapbooks, etc. [like those sketched in the brochure, “Mounting Techniques” from Light Impressions.] What is important to understand are the types of adhesives, tapes and fasteners that should not be used. [See above, “Common Enemies… : Adhesives…”]

MATTING: It is not crucial for you to know the types of mats or how to mat an item. It is more important to understand what proper matting and framing entails.

  • “Museum Framing” or matting is a phrase I am often asked to explain. It has very little to do with the actual frame, and everything to do with the materials used in mounting and matting the item.
  • All items to be displayed in frames covered by glass should first be overlaid by a paper mat, or mats, made of acid free, alkaline mat board, often known as “museum board.” To frame drawings, paintings, documents, etc. directly against glass invites condensation, moisture, mold growth, and eventual deterioration. To use a poor quality paper mat is to introduce harmful acid into your framed items (if an original mat is of value however, e.g. signed by an artist, it should be placed over a good quality mat when framed.)
  • Framed items must have a “back mat” to which they are mounted, or properly hinged (usually gummed paper or linen hinges attached with paste). The back mat must be of the same good quality board. A backboard, sealed with tape, completes the package and prevents dust from entering enclosure.


Books and Bound Volumes

1. Books and Bound Volumes


  • Prevent: shelve similar size volumes together, they support each other and prevent the stress and warping of boards caused by small volumes being jammed beside large ones.
  • Have rebound by book conservator if valuable.
  • Wrap (length & width) with linen “tape,” or plastic strips with velcro closures.
  • Purchase ready-made “Phase” folders or boxes, in which you can store the book, until you decided whether you want to have it conserved or rebound. .


  • A newer product “Cellugel” is available to coat leather bound volumes that have “red rot” deterioration (powdery red/brownish leather comes off on hands and clothing). It penetrates the leather, and prevents further deterioration.
  • In general, volumes should be dusted or lightly vacuumed, then cleaned & oiled. However, only tanned leather (not vellum, parchment, suede-types, or imitations) should be treated.


2. Photographs

TOUCHING: Avoid touching photographic images. Hold carefully by the edges, or use white cotton gloves. Finger-prints contain oils and sulfur. While the oil can be wiped off, minute sulfur deposits remain and, over time, become ineradicable stains.


  • Vertical storage is not best since, even when lying flat, modern photographs tend to curl. Flat storage is not always practical, however.
  • If filed vertically in folders and boxes make sure the boxes are full, either with enough photographs or with extra paper stuffed behind them to fill out the box; they can also be separated and supported by thicker mat board.
  • Storing family photographs in good quality photo albums or scrapbooks is an excellent solution, especially when they are mounted on paper or board with plastic sleeves surrounding each page. This gives good support to the images and makes handling and viewing safe and easy.


  • This is best left to photo conservators. Not a lot can be done to preserve original photographic images.
  • It is best to stabilize them, through proper storage and environmental conditions.
  • Then the best thing to do is have an experienced photographer make copy negatives and prints. Through copying and printing it is actually possible to enhance many old images.

Scrapbooks and Albums

3. Scrapbooks and Albums

SELECTING: Although you can often buy inexpensive scrapbooks and albums at discount and department stores, the paper and plastics in these albums is usually of poor quality, and your money would be better spent if you purchase better quality albums. Especially to be avoided are the “magnetic” type albums, whose pages contain a adhesive/sticky substance which holds a photo or clipping in place.


  • Good quality, acid free scrapbooks and albums can be purchased from archival supply houses.
  • Alternatively, purchase a cheaper, but attractive, three-ring binder and fill it with photos. or memorabilia mounted on acid free paper with good quality plastic “sheet protectors” surrounding each page. (“Good quality” = mylar, polyester, polypropylene.)


  • If the album is a family heirloom, one that has an interesting or unique binding or cover, one that has been written in by distant relatives or departed loved ones, you would most likely not want to destroy this “artifact.”
  • If an heirloom:
    • Have a conservator restore it.
    • Make, or buy ready-made, archival adhesives or pastes and mounting supplies, and with this, reattach the material to the original page; after this, if at all possible, encapsulating each page in plastic.
    • If not an heirloom, you could buy a new, better quality album and redo it, by transferring the pictures or items into it.

Oversized and Flat Material

4. Oversized and Flat Material

The important thing to remember here is to give this material proper support, both in storage and when it is filed or moved.


  • When carrying an oversized item it is always best to give it support, by placing it in a folder its size, or resting it on top of a sturdy piece of paper or board.


  • When filing or re-filing an oversized item (and even regular sized ones) it should never be “stuffed” into a vertical or horizontal folder or drawer.
  • Instead, take out several items from the same folder it is to be filed in, place the item among this group, and then push the entire group back into the folder. A group of items offer more rigid support than does one.

Textiles: Care and Handling

5. Textiles: Care and Handling


  • Textiles should be cleaned/dry-cleaned before storing.
  • Light vacuuming is appropriate (place nylon screening -“window screening”– over an upholstered or fragile item when vacuuming, as it protects the fibers.
  • Store away from damp basements, which can mold, mildew and rot fabrics, and away from the hot/cold of attic spaces.
  • Keep away from direct sunlight: close blinds, shades, curtains, etc.; install uv inhibiting glass, Plexiglas, or shades.
  • Muslin casings placed around textiles help cut down on the light and dust falling on them, while still allowing air to circulate and for them to “breathe.”
  • Inspect periodically for insects or insect damage; fumigate and clean if needed.


  • Store textiles flat, unfolded, if at all possible.
  • Store in closets, chests, boxes, etc., in living spaces of your house, away from high heat or humidity.
  • Hanging: Pad hangers with cotton terry cloth, muslin, or even a mattress pad cut to fit the hanger. This helps pad the construction stress points.
  • Prevent sharp creases by padding any folds with muslin or low-acid tissue paper.
  • Boxing: Use acid free, alkaline boxes, or line with 100% rag paper or tissue. This keeps textiles away from harmful acids in storage boxes.