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Preserving Your Paper Trail

After diligently searching for missing family documents, it would be a shame if you didn't preserve them once you have them.


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After diligently searching for missing family documents, it would be a shame if you didn't preserve them once you have them. Any information printed on paper is fragile–paper isn't made to last forever. To keep them for at least several generations, it's important to store your documents in an environment with a moderate temperature and relative humidity, clean air and good air circulation, and no natural or fluorescent light.

Most family genealogists gather up documents and file them in folders in a collapsible file box available at office supply stores. While this may be fine while you're working on a particular section of your family's genealogy, it's not good in the long term. Providing a good environment and storage conditions, as well as handling documents safely are critical to preserving them.

The materials used to make paper–paper components and inks–plus how it's made influence its long-term stability. The three enemies of paper are heat, dampness, and pollution. Don't store your genealogical documents, including photographs, in attics or basements or near water sources like washing machines or bathrooms. Think about what's in the room above, should you live in a multi-story house. Likewise, keep documents away from heat sources like radiators, fireplaces, and heat-producing appliances.

Store your documents dark, cool, relatively dry locations with about 35 percent relative humidity and a temperature below 72 degrees F. Maintaining steady temperature and relative humidity is preferable over conditions that cycle up and down–and it will be good for your fuel bill, too. Also, moisture tends to collect on outside walls, so find a closet on an inside wall. High humidity can lead to the development of foxing–small brown disfiguring spots in paper–or mold growth.

Light can be just as damaging to your documents. Keep documents and photographs in the dark as much as you can. Ultraviolet (UV) rays, mostly from sunlight and flourescent bulbs, are especially harmful to paper. Manuscripts, newsprint, and even photocopied documents are particularly susceptible to fading or yellowing from light.

We complain about air pollutants from car exhausts outside, but did you know your heating system, no matter how efficient, also causes pollution on the inside. And the better insulated your house is, the worse it can be. Make sure you change your heating unit filters regularly. Dust

can also work its way into paper and invite other pests such as such as silverfish, book lice and book worms, which can eat, soil and damage paper. Check your documents regularly for evidence of mice. Doing so will help reduce the threat of these pests. It's one thing for your documents to yellow. It's quite another when they're eaten and disappear all together.

In your search, you'll most likely begin to collect newspaper clippings. To keep them for the long term, copy them onto buffered paper. Ask about Xerox XXV Century Bond or an equivalent at your neighborhood copy shop.

Prior to the mid-1800's, newspaper publishers printed their papers on paper made using cotton rag fiber which has survived in archives. But this was a time-consuming and expensive process, so by the 1880's most newspaper publishers began using paper produced using untreated ground wood fibers for more expensive rag content, and included additional substances to prevent discoloration and decrease porosity. But, at the same time, reactive agents within the paper, itself, speeded up its deterioration. Excessive moisture causes the impurities present in the newsprint to produce acids which weaken it. On the other hand, excessive heat and dryness contribute to the paper's brittleness. So it's a lose-lose situation.

Generally, it's best if you store your documents flat and unfolded in buffered folders. Folding and unfolding will produce creases and tears. If you can't find buffered folders, use a sheet of Xerox XXV Century Bond at the front and back of a regular manila folder.

Some of your documents may have old staples or old paperclips holding them together. If either has become rusty, slide a very thin piece of stiff plastic–like the kind used in most molded packaging–under the fastener on both sides of the document. Slide the paperclip off the plastic or use a thin knife to bend the ends of the staple up and pry it out. The plastic will protect the paper from abrasion and your tools. Do not use staple pullers.

Now that you have your documents safely stored, you want to make sure you don't touch them with your bare hands when you work with them, as the oils in your skin can stain the paper. Purchase a pair or two of thin white cotton gloves, the kind used by researchers looking through old books and manuscripts. Also, avoid eating and drinking while handling your documents. Have your cup of coffee or tea before or after. And always use pencils when working with your documents to avoid possible unremovable ink marks.

If a document becomes wet or moldy wet, dry it flat with warm circulating air. Using a hair dryer will often make it crinkle and buckle due to the uneven heat. To flatten a document, iron it between two pieces of Xerox XXV Century Bond paper using a cool iron.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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