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Preserving your family collections


Many people have some sort of family collections stashed away in their homes - family photos, letters, post cards, newspaper clippings and journals full of memories. Although they have lasted this long, what are you doing to ensure that these items of personal value will be preserved for the future?

Archives, libraries and museums are not the only organizations tasked with preserving history these days. You can take a few steps to make sure that your family treasures will last for future generations without spending a lot of money and effort in doing so. The first step is to identify the type of material you wish to preserve. 

Let's discuss photographs and negatives since they are so prevalent within family collections. Photographic processes have evolved greatly over the years, each type of material - glass plate negative, nitrate negative, cellulose negative, tintype or gelatin print, etc. - all have different storage recommendations. The Northeast Document Conservation Center website has extensive information on how to identify photograph and negative material types - and the information is free!

Consider the environment where you store your photos - pollutants, light, heat and moisture are all environmental factors that place your collections at risk. Pollutants such as dust can be abrasive and increase harmful chemical reactions in certain materials. High temperatures can accelerate deterioration. High humidity promotes mold growth, while excessive dryness can increase cracking. Extreme fluctuations in temperature can cause flaking and warping, and ultraviolet rays cause yellowing, fading and disintegration.

When handling prints and negatives, oils from your hands can be very damaging. Use clean gloves or wash and dry your hands thoroughly when handling photographs and negatives. Also, handle the edges of photos and negatives.

Always use archival quality materials when storing photographic materials - folders, sleeves and boxes. Avoid adhesives such as rubber cement and self-gluing photo pages, which can cause chemical damage. Also avoid metal fasteners and rubber bands.

Another key to preservation is giving your images context - identify the people in each photo, the location where the photo was taken and the date of when it was taken to the best of your ability. This gives added meaning to each image. Keep in mind not to write on the image. When this information is not recorded, it can be very hard, if not impossible, to recreate.

For instance, I have a family album from the 1890s in my family collection. We know based off of landmarks that some of the images were taken in Germany. Only a handful of individuals have been identified. At one point, this album was of great importance and treasured to someone in the family since it traveled so far - but since we don't know who everyone is and how they are connected to us, the meaning and value is slowly being lost.

Scanning your collections is another great tool to aid in preservation. The Smithsonian Institution Archives advocates that photographs are scanned at a resolution of at least 600 pixels per inch, 24 bit RGB and saved in a non-compressed standard file format like TIFF. Keep in mind that if you do digitize your collections, you still need to take care of the original copies.

Remember, preservation is an ongoing process - the steps you take today will have to be revisited and updated as standards change over time and technology advances.

Sources: Northeast Document Conservation Center website:

Smithsonian Institution Archives website:

Kristen Heidenthal lives in Coulee Dam and is about three semesters away from receiving a master's degree in archives and records administration from San Jose State University.

Illustration photos from Wikimedia's Creative Commons collection.

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