Archival Answers: Invisible Ink

By Diane Haddad Premium

Q. I have an old family tree handwritten in fountain pen. The ink is fading. I’ve recorded the information from the tree. My elder relatives tell me to let the handwriting naturally fade away. I don’t want to let that happen. What’s your advice as to having someone go over the handwriting?

A. Your question highlights a contentious preservation issue — let time take its natural toll, or use modern techniques to alter an old document? A professional conservator can explain your options and help you decide what to do. For referrals, contact a historical society or The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (202-452-9545, <>).

Our experts’ responses to your question reflect preservationists’ varied viewpoints. Maureen A. Taylor, author of Preserving Your Family Photographs (Betterway Books), suggests having a conservator deacidify the document and enhance the handwriting with ink. Be prepared: the process may be expensive and will take some time.

On the other hand, Caring for Your Family Treasures (Heritage Preservation) co-author Jane Long says, “Your relatives know best!” She recommends having the document professionally photocopied or photographed onto acid-free paper to create a realistic copy you can frame and admire. (This is a good idea whether or not you decide to alter the original.) “Then safely store the original away from light sources to prolong the life of both paper and ink,” Long advises.

Museum-quality acid and lignin-free boxes and encapsulation (see<> for instructions) are good storage options.

From the May 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.