5 Things You Should Not Do with Old Family Artifacts

Newell Gile Caroline Webber marriage certificate 19 Nov 1864 (2) DSC00637

Here are two pictures of family artifacts. Both are marriage certificates of my ancestors on different sides of my family. The first document is older than the second by about 50 years, and it certainly shows its age. You can see it has creases from being folded and water marks from being exposed to moisture. It is stored in a box in the attic. The second document is nicely framed and hangs on the wall in a spare bedroom. I don’t know who originally folded the first document (I think it was probably the original owners, as such documents are often folded for portability), and I don’t know how old the water marks are. I’m not even saying that the framed one is the ideal as far as caring for old documents is concerned. I am merely holding them up for consideration. What do you want your family documents to look like 100 or 150 years from now? Here are some tips for what not to do if you want them to last:

1. Do not store them in the attic or the basement

Yes, I know, this is where everyone stores their old records. And yes, my family is currently storing them there now. And yes, I know, they don’t have space anywhere else. But in reality, it is not an ideal location. Here’s why:

An attic, unless it is a finished attic with an HVAC hookup, basically counts as an outdoor space. The temperature in an attic can fluctuate greatly depending on the weather and how you heat your house. Hot air rises, and that hot air accumulates in the attic. On a hot summer day, an attic will be much hotter than the temperature outside. Basements generally have more stable temperatures, but both attics and basements can accumulate moisture as well, and neither moisture nor fluctuating temperatures are good for papers and photographs or any other kind of family artifact that you want to preserve. Everyone knows that moisture attracts living things that like to eat paper and fabric, but in addition to that, did you know that heat and moisture are what make papers turn yellow and become brittle? A closet or filing cabinet somewhere in the middle of your home is a better location.

Sometimes, however, there really is no other place to put family artifacts besides the attic or basement. If you do store things in the basement, Make sure the boxes they are stored in are not in direct contact with the ground, in case the basement floods, and install a dehumidifier or put some moisture absorbing packets in the boxes. If you do have to store them in the attic, make sure the attic is well-insulated and well-ventilated (this will help the overall energy efficiency of your home as well). Space out your storage containers and items so that air can flow around them, and use a dehumidifier or moisture absorber there as well.

2. Do not glue them in a scrapbook or album

Photo albums with sticky pages used to be really popular, and thank goodness they are more difficult to find these days. Any kind of adhesive is a really good way to ruin a photo or a paper. Of course, if you have a copy of a photograph you are welcome to glue it or stick it to anything, but do not glue the original. The chemical compounds in glue and adhesives can cause damage to photos and documents over time, causing them to become sticky on the edges and surface or to become transparent. If you want to put them in an album (which is a great idea, because it allows for your family history to be shared more easily), use sheet protectors to store them individually or photo corners to attach them to a page.

If you have a family album with old photos already firmly glued in, do not try to peel the photos off. You will most likely do more harm than good at this point. Your best bet is to leave them in the album and digitize the pages.

3. Do not hang them on the wall facing a window

Putting your prized family documents or photos on display is a wonderful thing to do. They can help remind you where you came from and be a great conversation starter. But have you seen what sunlight does to such items? It can cause them to fade very rapidly, and even eventually disintegrate them. If you have to hang them on a wall facing the window, print off a copy instead and store the original. And if you are keeping the original in a photo frame, do not glue or tape it in, avoid sealing it in to prevent condensation, and hang it away from the sunlight.

4. Do not keep them in a box, unorganized and unlabeled

Now of course this is what a lot of people do with their records. And it is probably fine for you, you know where everything is and what it is, you can find it. But stop and think about this for a moment. Someday, you will leave this world, and your descendants will have to figure out what to do with your boxes and boxes of stuff. If they came across a box full of random papers, would they know it is the family genealogy? And if they came across a box full of old photos, would they know who was in those photos? Would they care?

It is a good idea to come up with some sort of organizing system. Sort your papers into folders or albums, at the very least. But a better thing to do would be to digitize everything and give everyone a copy of the files. Even better? Create a genealogy book containing the stories of your ancestors as well as high-quality prints of old photos and documents that is good enough for everyone in the family to proudly display on their coffee table instead of hiding in the basement.

5. Do not hoard them and hide them from everyone

This one really, really makes me frustrated. I have heard multiple accounts of people who have a book of the family genealogy, either of their own research or handed down through the generations, and they keep it for themselves. They won’t let anyone else see it. They usually claim there is some evil person in the family or out in the world that they don’t want to get a hold of “my genealogy.” This is usually fueled by some ancient family feud in which the one person holding on to the the genealogy is still holding a grudge against the other side of the family, or because of paranoia about–well, I don’t really know what the paranoia is about, it really doesn’t make sense to me. A lot of the reasoning from #4 applies here. You will depart from this world someday. And “they” probably will eventually get their hands on your genealogy, either through your research, or through doing the research themselves. Doing genealogy is getting easier and easier as more records are becoming available online.

And guess what? It’s not “your” genealogy. It belongs to you and your descendants, your parents, your grandparents, great-grandparents, all of your ancestors and all of their descendants. All of those descendants have a right to know where they came from. The growing popularity of genealogy today is proof that the people of the world have a real hunger to know where they came from. You can’t hide that from them, even if you tried. Hiding your genealogy from your family will only make you more bitter and angry about it. But sharing it openly with them can help you feel more love and closeness to your family, and to your ancestors as well.

In future posts, I will discuss more things that you actually should be doing with your old family artifacts. In the meantime,the United States National Archives has an excellent webpage describing how to preserve family papers: http://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives/preserving-family-papers.html

Featured Image via Stocksnap by Joanna Kosinska.

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  1. Pingback: 3 Things to do With Old Family Artifacts | The Handwritten Past

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