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A Short Primer on Preserving Your Heirlooms

While preserving heirlooms differs depending on what the item is made from, there are some rules that pertain to all heirlooms.


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What have you inherited from family members? Maybe you have your parent's World War II letters or the elusive Family Bible. Maybe you have a quilt that was made by your great-grandmother or your mother's wedding dress. Some genealogists are lucky in that they have inherited what seems to be a family archive. But even if you weren't that lucky, chances are that you have items that will be important to future generations whether they were given to you by an ancestor or are items pertaining to your own life.

While preserving heirlooms differs depending on what the item is made from, there are some rules that pertain to all heirlooms.

Partly Cloudy with No Chance of Rain

In general, heirlooms like the same conditions that we do. Not too cold and not too hot, mild temperatures and low humidity. You may not like rats and bugs and neither do your heirlooms. While we all wish for an ancestor's attic filled with family treasures, that's really not the sort of conditions you want to store heirlooms in. Keep your family treasures away from severe weather, pests and the garage or attic.

Never do anything to an heirloom that you cannot undo. Most of us are familiar with the example of photos placed in magnetic photo albums (these are the ones which has adhesive on the page, you stick down the photo and then lay the clear plastic sheet on top of it.) Magnetic albums seem like a good idea but they damage photographs in multiple ways, including fading the photo and in some cases the adhesive permanently adheres the photo to the pages.

Other things that should not be done to heirlooms include laminating documents or photos, restoring an antique or using your washing machine to wash old textiles

Watch What You Do with That Glue Stick

Scrapbooking is a lot of fun. With the multitudes of embellishments that can be added to tell a story, scrapbooking can become addictive. But with anything, make sure you think through anything that is placed on or near your precious photographs. Metal embellishments should never be placed on or have contact with photographs. Over time, they can rust and ruin your photograph or document. With any embellishment you add to a scrapbook, consider whether it can damage photos that it comes into contact. This can include materials like paper (cardboard, envelopes or newsprint are just a few examples) other photos and plastics.

If you print your digital photos on your printer, make sure you research the ink that you are using. Ink jet ink may not last as long as having your photos professionally printed. Over time the photographs may fade. I have photographs of my oldest son taken 12 years ago that are more faded than photos of my grandparents in the 1930s.

When displaying older photos in frames be aware that light shining on the photos can cause damage, as well as the chance that damage can occur to the photograph by the glass in the frame and the mat.

Put the Hammer and Varnish Down and Back Away Slowly

It can be tempting to take on conservation work when you have an heirloom badly in need of repair. Our constant access to information on fixing antiques from television, the Internet and books make it seem like we should be able to take on some much needed repairs. But no matter how tempted you are, don't do it. If you have an item that is damaged, seek out a conservator to help with repair or even advice. To find a conservator consult the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Looking for ways to preserve, store, document and conserve your heirlooms? Check out the following resources:


Photos, Film, Ephemera and Documents


General ResourcesBooks

  • "The Organized Family Historian: How to File, Manage, and Protect your Genealogical Research and Heirlooms" by Ann Carter Fleming. Rutledge Hill Press. 2004.



Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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