Friday, August 14, 2015

Personal preservation at home

Hello constant reader of our blog—today I am going to try something a little different.  Instead of discussing all of the great treasures we have come across in our routine work, I’d like to provide some advice and tips on preserving materials in your own home.

We are frequently asked (usually in hallways, offhandedly or as part of another conversation) what someone should do with their papers, photographs, objects of intense value at their homes.  Typically this is born from a need, such as doing some spring-cleaning, or moving, or re-locating a loved one who has accumulated substantial physical holdings.*  So today I’d like to go over some of the main points of preservation in that hopes that it helps you gain control over priceless family, or personal heritage and history.
Archival folder-so sturdy, so acid-free

Let’s start with a brief overview of what to do with all the paper.  Paper records are actually not the most common question we get asked about here.  But paper records can be very important for a wide-variety of reasons.  I’ve needed my physical birth certificate in order to get a social security card in order to get a passport—each one of those documents represents substantial time spent in a line in a federal facility (or in the case of the birth certificate, it represents one of the first, if not THE first formal documentation of someone’s exist within the legal framework of the US).  So not only is the information contained on those documents really critical—like, you need it do everything from vote, to get a job, to travel—but it can also be very special to return to these documents after many years purely for the nostalgic effect.  Other documents that could be ravaged by time include degrees, diplomas and certificates which are all physical examples of passing through a phase of life, graduating from one realm of experience to another or a change in station within the broader context of society.  And then there’s the records you keep for a while and then get rid of—let’s think about mainly receipts, pay stubs and bank transaction records.  The latter group of materials can usually be kept in a regular old file storage box and then shredded, hydro-pulped or burned after a specific time period.**
My two favorite words.

For the good stuff, we want to go the extra mile.  For those priceless documents representing accomplishment, government status or the purchase of a home you will want to store these documents in acid-free file folders, typically free of staples, paper-clips and rubber bands.  These files should be stored upright in a box and then kept in a place in your residence that experiences neither massive temperature fluctuations nor excessive humidity or dryness.  Temperature fluctuations can cause warping, expansion, and contraction at the pulp-level which leads to crinkling, breakage, and deformation.  A storage area that is too dry will reduce these documents to fragile sheets of desiccated fibers, which will crack and break at the mere thought of being handled by humans.  Whereas excessive humidity leads to de facto hydro-pulping in which the composite materials of the documents form a mush in the worst scenarios or leads to running inks, mold blooms, and other content loss in only moderate scenarios.  So what I tell people is that stabilization is the biggest thing you can do.  Once materials are stabilized in a stable environment then rust begins to slow down as well as other factors that lead to document destruction.  So if you cannot get all the fancy archival supplies, then first start with finding the most temperature neutral and humidity neutral areas in your home, the ones closest to 60 -70 degrees Fahrenheit with a 45-55 percent relative humidity, and find a way to store those critical papers there.

Medium-strength records carton

Cotton bond paper 25% cotton.  The higher cotton content the better.***
Once you have selected this space (make sure this is removed from direct exposure to heat/cooling vents, windows, pets and toddlers), then it is time to review potential preservation actions.  These can include shopping for acid-free and buffered document storage boxes via archival supplies vendors, purchasing 25%-100% cotton bond paper for interleaving, or just simply finding the sturdiest records boxes from your local office supply store.  Archival supplies can cost more money, but lead to stronger and better preservation over time.  Using cotton bond can be a great way of cheaply creating an environment where one document does not damage another.  For instance, that handwritten letter from Great-Grandpa, grandma, mom or estranged cousin sitting next to an article from a college newsletter could be potentially destructive.  As newsprint (and other cheap papers) degrade they release acid (ever had a soft cover novel where the inside cover is orange?  Yep, acid), over time the acid migrates to its neighbors giving them a lovely shade of orange coloring.  Placing sheets of cotton bond paper between these items reduces (and can completely halt) the migration of acid from one document to another.  Lastly, sturdy supplies from an office supply store usually have lower acid content and the rigid structure necessary to protect documents from being crushed, bent or made to do yoga while in storage, thus reducing the wrinkles and bends, which over time, become rips and tears.
I know I promised to discuss more types of media, but I’ll get to that next week.  There’s a lot to say about materials and after writing, what I felt to be the minimum needed to give you some guidance and direction, I now feel I would end up with a “tl:dr” post.  Anyhow, stay-tuned for another post in a week about photographs.  And if we are super lucky I’ll get into digital materials after that.

Stay frosty.

*Archival slang (yes, we have this) for “tons of stuff/junk” or in some cases “hoarding.”

**Please, please, please double-check your local (usually state) and the federal requirements (IRS) for keeping certain types of financial documents.  They can accumulate quickly and for a variety of reasons they need to be kept for as little as seven years in some cases and permanently in others.  This blog is not a substitution for records management advice.

***It just "looks" gray.  It's actually a very bright white.

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