Working with Your Artifacts

Hints on Preservation Storage
Many of us who own old family documents and mementos that we want to pass along to future generations probably don’t realize the importance of proper care and storage. Following is some information that can help you prolong the life of your irreplaceable family treasures.

Attics and basements are often used for storage, but these places are usually not the best homes for old artifacts. Books, photographs, and papers need to live in environments with moderate and stable temperatures and relative humidity. Extreme heat and temperature fluctuations can make paper brittle (the fibers weaken as they constantly expand and contract), while high humidity causes mold and mildew. Keep books and papers away from direct sunlight or bright artificial light to prevent fading and damage from ultraviolet radiation. Valuables should not be stored near potential sources of water damage (such as basement floors that may flood, water pipes, and washing machines) and heat damage (such as radiators, fireplaces, and appliances that produce heat). Dehumidifiers and fans that circulate clean air can help if you must use your attic or basement. Dirt and dust are no friends of longevity, so good housekeeping is a must.

Hints on Preservation Suppliers
Many of us who own old family documents and mementos that we want to pass along to future generations probably don’t realize the importance of proper care and storage. Following is some information that can help you prolong the life of your irreplaceable family treasures.

Following is a partial list of reputable firms used by archives and other professional institutions for storage and preservation materials. They all have web sites where you can shop online, but most will send paper catalogs upon request. Their merchandise isn’t cheap, but the disadvantage of spending a few extra dollars will be far outweighed by the knowledge that you are helping to preserve your family’s mementos and treasures and making it possible for your descendants to enjoy and take pride in them.

Archival Methods
235 Middle Road
Henrietta NY 14467
(866) 877–7050

Gaylord Brothers
Box 4901
Syracuse NY 13221–4901
(800) 448–6160

Hollinger Corporation
PO Box 8360
Fredericksburg VA 22404
(800) 634–0491

Light Impressions
PO Box 787
Brea CA 92822–0787
(800) 828–6216

Metal Edge, Inc.
6340 Bandini Avenue
Commerce CA 90040
(800) 862–2228

University Products
PO Box 101 517 Main Street
Holyoke MA 01841
(800) 336-1912

Hints on Preservation of Textiles
Don’t store articles of clothing by hanging them up. Over time, gravity will pull on the seams and separate them, especially if the garment is heavy, such as a satin wedding gown. Instead, fold it (buffered tissue paper can be used to minimize creases) and store it in an archival-quality box. If you must use a box made of chemically active materials such as wood or plastic, line the interior with a protective barrier such as heavy-duty aluminum foil. Don’t use plastic bags or tightly sealed containers to store textiles, as these can generate high humidity that will result in mildew. Clean the fabric by vacuuming. If the article is large or sturdy, you can vacuum with an up-and-down motion through a sheet of flexible plastic screening (lift, don’t drag, the nozzle). For more fragile items, gently dust with a soft brush directly into the nozzle of the vacuum.

Hints on Preservation of Artifact Books
Books should be shelved upright and supported by bookends if necessary (very large volumes should be stored flat). Make sure the shelves are deep enough to prevent the ends of the books from hanging over the edge. Don’t pack books so tightly on a shelf that you have to tug one to get it out, and never pull on the top of the spine, which will eventually tear (pushing the books on either side will help remove the book in the middle). For old books such as family Bibles, it might be best to use archival quality enclosures such as phase boxes or clamshell boxes, which will protect the books from light and dust. Different sizes of pamphlet enclosures are available to house smaller printed items such as programs, menus, and brochures. Don’t lay an open book face down, and don’t press down the book’s pages to ease a stiff binding—you might break the paper and/or the spine.

Most people keep books on wooden shelves, but in fact wood is unkind to books. Like cardboard and certain plastics and metals, wood emits acids and chemicals (a process known as “offgassing”) that react with paper and cause deterioration. Archival bookshelves are made of steel with baked-enamel finish, but few of us are going to go out and purchase these for our homes—for one thing, they’re ugly! So if you are storing your family Bible on your grandfather’s hand-made oak shelves, use a buffered book enclosure to protect it from the effects of the wood.

Musty Odors
Paper is highly affected by the surrounding environment. It’s happiest living in dust-free rooms that enjoy moderate, steady temperatures and relative humidity, clean air, good air circulation, and little natural or fluorescent light. Unfortunately, many family Bibles and books have spent their existence in less-than-ideal surroundings and have often suffered as a result. Two common problems are musty odors and folded pages too brittle to open. In most cases it’s possible to solve — or, at least, minimize — these problems with some homemade solutions.

Those unpleasant musty smells you notice when you open an old book are the result of past mold or mildew. The first thing to do is make sure the book is dry by putting it in a cool, dry space for several hours. If the book is damp, open it and stand it up with pages fanned so that they will dry. Circulating the air with a fan will speed up the process.

Next, you’ll need two clean containers, one large (with a lid) and one small. Garbage cans are ideal, but make sure they’re new or at least very clean — you don’t want to replace the smell of mold with that of garbage! In the bottom of the larger can, place some type of odor-absorbing material, such as baking soda or clay kitty litter. Put the book into the smaller can, and place that inside the larger can. Be careful to keep the deodorizing material from touching the book. Then place the lid on the larger can and leave it overnight in a cool place. It may take a number of days before the smell is absorbed, so you will need to check once a day. Also, while you’re at it, check to make sure that no mold is growing; if it is, the surrounding environment is too warm and damp

Possible Forthcoming Topics
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Heritage Preservation is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the United States. By identifying risks, developing innovative programs, and providing broad public access to expert advice, Heritage Preservation assists museums, libraries, archives, historic preservation, and other organizations, as well as individuals, in caring for our endangered heritage. 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 1200 Washington, DC 20005 (202) 233-0800

New publication (non-member regular price: $24.95, member regular price: $18.00): A team of top museum professionals, assembled by Heritage Preservation, provide practical advice and easy-to-use guidelines on: how to polish silver and furniture without diminishing their value; how to preserve a wedding dress for future generations; the safest materials and procedures for creating a scrapbook that will last; how to care for a photograph album that is deteriorating; creating safe display conditions for ceramics, dolls, quilts, or other treasured collections; and much more.

Paul Schlotthauer has been an archivist and librarian at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Teachers College at Columbia University, and the Queens Borough Public Library. He is currently the archivist of Pratt Institute and lives in New York City. He will also be providing two short articles for the March issue of the Newsletter: how to relax paper (so that it can be unfolded) and how to remove the musty smell from old books easily and safely.