A Guest Blog by Jens Peterson
What you post online today may never go away. But history was just semi-permanent before the internet came along. Today, paper records and photographs will only last as long as the paper they’re printed on. That’s why EverPresent came to be. We save millions of family memories each year. We scan the scrapbooks, wedding albums, birth certificates and vintage photos that track family journeys through generations. For years, we’ve honed our craft to protect even the most fragile items because we know it’s important.
Why Preserve Old Prints and Letters?
Most early photos, letters and vital records are printed on paper. There are some exceptions – like cave paintings or stone tablets – but these won’t do much for your own family tree.
Your history is a puzzle, and the pieces are vulnerable. Even carefully stored letters and photos are made from stuff that holds acids and other harsh chemicals. Luckily, most paper before the mid-19th century was made out of used cotton rags. This rag paper has a low acid content and lasts a long time. However, since then, many paper makers shifted to a wood pulp product which was cheaper to make and buy than its cotton predecessor, and also more acidic. Because of the acidity it breaks down faster – and takes your story along with it. Even the inks and glues in photo prints, albums and envelopes can cause damage.
This doesn’t mean you should give up on preserving your family history. Knowing how to preserve old photos, documents and letters is a science, and our experts at EverPresent have compiled the Top 5 ways to preserve the antique pictures and texts that tell your story.
5 Ways to Preserve Your Past
1. Control the Climate
Before we talk media, think about the climate around your fragile bits of the past. Photos and texts can fade from sunlight and turn yellow, dust and dirt can be tough to get off when it’s caked onto paper, and getting anything wet can damage your items beyond repair.
What’s more, special aging tests have shown that hot, humid rooms will boost paper’s acid content and speed up decay. But arid climates can dry out your materials, making them brittle and easy to crumble.
The Library of Congress is a vital resource for protecting the past. Its experts suggest storing your prints and papers in cool temperatures (about 73 degrees or below), and 30 to 40 percent relative humidity. The best storage spaces are also ventilated and have minimal air pollution.
Cost can be the biggest challenge to the climate control approach. Devices like thermostats and humidifiers aren’t cheap, not to mention the fuel and power it takes to run them. If this approach is in your budget, it’ll help your archive last longer. If not, then keep reading for more ways to save your family history.
2. Choose the Right Materials
Store your pictures and clippings in archival-grade materials to keep decay at bay. These are mostly folders, boxes and liners made from stable plastics and acid-free paper. The Archival Methods website offers a range of these products to choose from. If you’d rather shop around, be sure to look for terms like ‘archival-grade’ or ‘acid-free’ on the packaging.
Archival paper is often acid-free. We’ll spare you the chemistry lesson, but some acid-free paper has chemical traits that counter damage from acid. Lots of museums and collectors use this paper.
While it’s okay to use airtight bags and bins made from stable plastic, this solution has two risks. First, not all plastic is stable – some of it has chemicals or coatings that can harm your family items. Second, air can’t flow through plastic like it does with paper so gas can be an issue.
Most records are printed on non-archival paper that gives off harmful gases. If that gas can’t escape the plastic bin, it could stays trapped inside with your valuables for years. So, overall it’s best to stick to archival-grade materials for storage.
3. Organize and Label
Unfortunately, physical damage isn’t the only threat to your legacy. Photos and other shards of the past can fit together to tell stories. If your collection’s not labeled and organized, your story might be incomplete or unclear.
And that’s where you come in. Before beginning to research your family history, is the best time to organize your family collection. Lots of antique portraits and letters have dates, names and places written on them. You can use these cues to sort and label groups of artifacts.
Organizing can help make sense of your history. Your natural instinct may be to sort by year, but you’d be surprised how long and tough this approach can be. Especially for big collections.
We recommend splitting your photos up into these basic categories:
- Family Groups: Sorting by family is a smart way to help your own genealogical efforts.
- Vacation Photos: Each new destination is an adventure for the folks in your photos. Why not tag along for the ride?
- Holidays & Milestones: These events center around family, achievements and turning points in people’s lives. They’re important chapters in your story.
- Individuals: Each relative can be a new branch in your family tree. Sorting by person can help you visualize how the whole family is connected.
In the same way, consider these sorting tips when working with letters and documents:
- Separate by theme: Personal correspondence features your family’s bonds with their inner circle. Professional and state-related letters can show their ties to the outside world.
- Group by format: Keep all your letters in one place and your documents (ex: diplomas and birth certificates) in another. You may want to frame those documents, but place your letters in a photo book instead.
- Sort by condition: Keeping your fragile items separate from the others can help you get a sense of what needs special care while scanning and storing.
Once you’re organized, your ongoing quest for family history could turn up more data. A well-sorted collection adds context for the newer discoveries that you’ll find later on.
4. Consider Conservation Treatment for Truly Special Items
Conservationists repair damage and prevent it from getting worse.
Special conservation treatments can extend your pictures’ and documents’ shelf life. Conservation can be costly – some experts charge more than $600 to start – but some items in your collection may be worth it.
Your treatment options depend on the condition of your media, and the goals you have in mind. A conservator can tell you more about what your collection might need. You can choose to clean dust and mold, fix tears and blemishes, and even apply chemicals to make items acid-resistant.
These treatments can add years to your story’s shelf life, but this is only a short-term solution. To preserve your legacy for as long as possible, you may want to consider digitizing your collection and storing the originals in archival-grade containers.
5. Make it Digital
Digitizing your prints and papers is an advanced way to preserve them and keep them from decay and disarray. And because your research reports from Genealogists.com include digital copies of what they find, these gems will fit nicely into the rest of your digital archive.
Once the pieces of your past are digital, their legibility and image quality won’t worsen over time. You can either buy a scanner and do this yourself, or find a professional photo and letter scanning service nearby or one that accepts orders via mail.
Here’s a few things to consider if you want to scan on your own:
- Your collection: Estimate how many items you have and judge their condition. Scanning lots of fragile items takes much more time and care than a few sturdy sheets of paper
- The scanner: Auto-feed scanners are great for large batches of standard-size photos in good condition. Yet we don’t recommend them for your old letters and documents. These vintage pieces are too fragile for the auto-feed machines to safely pull them through. Use a flatbed scanner to keep these items flat and minimize the risk of damage.
- Resolution: Scanning resolution is measured in dots per inch (DPI), or how many dots of information fit in a one-inch space. 300 DPI is good for text, but you might consider 600 DPI for photos, and higher DPI levels for 35mm slides and negatives that hold more visual detail.
Professional digitizing services like EverPresent should have the tools and skills to save your old prints and vital records but just make sure you understand what technology they use and how they return your new digital scans. We recommend getting both digital files and a USB drive you can store in a fireproof box in your home.
Here’s what to look for in a professional service:
Digitizing your memories can be a personal, emotional journey. Your story deserves high-quality scans by folks who respect you and the lives of your loved ones.
You can find plenty of scanning services online, but not everyone handles non-standard formats like vintage documents every day. Find a digitizer that offers friendly service you can count on. Make sure they actually answer the phone so you can get questions answered about truly special, delicate items.
Scanning experts should respect the integrity of original items and offer to save as much detail as possible. Preservation should include editing the digital copies just enough to keep their initial look.
It can also mean scanning the white borders on old photo prints to preserve dates or handwriting, or cropping them out to just keep the photo. You may also want to copy that handwriting into the file names or metadata of your digital files.
Once all of the details are digital, the options to sort and organize your digital archive are endless!
Tools to Sort.
Digital organizing features can make it easy to use your digital library. Labelling, face-tagging and keyword searches allow you to quickly find specific items by searching for dates, names and locations. Keeping documents in order can, again, add to their historical value by showing their place in a larger collection.
Ways to Share.
Custom design projects take bits of the past that seem disconnected and tie them into a cohesive story. Some places will turn your old pictures and letters into a photo book, slideshow or even a website that you can share with the entire family.
Before it Fades Away
Saving the past can be an exciting and rewarding project. It takes time and top-tier research skills to help solve the puzzle.
Just like any museum or collector, it’s important to protect your family treasures and the stories around them.
Whether you’ve done the research or you’re just getting started, follow these tips to guard your legacy and preserve your vintage photos and documents for generations to come.