Ask the Archivist: Back to School

Ask the Archivist: Back to School

Tools for taking care of your family's legacy

Your ancestor may or may not have been an A+ student, but someone in your family tree deserves a gold star for saving those old school papers. Employ these lessons from archival experts to preserve the reports, papers and artwork in your family collection.


Q. I inherited my parents’ old school papers and artwork from the 1930s and ’40s. Some are on newsprint and turning brown. What’s the best way to preserve these keepsakes?

A. Most 20th-century school work is on inexpensive paper not meant to be saved for generations. Lignin and acids in the paper cause it to turn brown and brittle over time. Scanning these papers preserves the content, even if the paper itself deteriorates. You can delay disintegration by keeping report cards and other printed papers in buffered, acid-free archival file folders. Open each item flat.

Artwork made with charcoal, pastel, crayon or other “unstable” media, however, is better stored in unbuffered enclosures—the buffering agent can cause changes in color. If such art is mounted on acidic board, put it in an unbuffered enclosure with a sheet of buffered paper against the back of the mounting board. Don’t store artwork in plastic sleeves, because the static electricity can lift the art media. Keep the folders in an archival box in an area with relatively consistent temperature and humidity. To display items such as diplomas or certificates, frame them with an acid-free, archival mat and backing board under UV-3 glass (which helps prevent fading due to light exposure). Or, frame a digital copy and preserve the original in archival storage.

Buffered Zone Most paper produced after the 19th century is made from wood-based pulp, which contains a substance called lignin that helps hold fibers together. In time, lignin breaks down and produces acid, causing the paper to turn brown and deteriorate. Materials stored next to this type of paper are prone to damage, too, from acid migration. Buffered paper contains a buffering agent, such as calcium carbonate, to raise its pH level and neutralize the acids in adjacent materials. Sheets of buffered paper interleaved in old scrapbooks help protect acidic newspaper clippings from harming other materials. Folders made of buffered paper help protect old paper records.

For tips on when to use buffered storage materials, see University Products.

Preserving Yearbooks
If your school yearbooks have intact bindings, you can safely store them upright on sturdy shelving within the living area of your home (not a basement or attic, where fluctuations in temperature and humidity are common). Try to avoid areas subject to dust and smoke.

Remove any bookmarks and memorabilia from inside the books. Preserve the context of the item by replacing it with a photocopy on acid-free paper.

Avoid removing books from the shelf by pulling on the spine. Instead, gently grasp the front and back covers.

To remove dust, gently vacuum your books and bookshelves using the hose attachment with a nylon stocking stretched over the nozzle and secured with a rubber band.

Store rare or fragile books in archival drop-front boxes that closely fit the size of the book. They’re available from suppliers such as or

From the September 2014 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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