Whether you’ve inherited a shoebox of old snapshots or an entire house filled with a lifetime of memories, becoming your family’s caretaker of the past is a weighty responsibility. It’s also a joy for those who understand the physical connection to your ancestors that old items can provide. We’ve been privileged to stand by you in your role as heirloom guardian. Here, we review some of the best heirloom advice we’ve dispensed in our 15 years, plus a few new tips. Follow these guidelines to care for your collection, and its history will enrich your family for generations to come.
1. Name your collection.
As I’ve grappled with organizing, digitizing, preserving and sharing several generations of keepsakes from both sides of my family tree, I’ve found it remarkably helpful to start with one small thing: Give the collection a name.
The biggest benefit of naming your collection is certainly emotional. Genealogists and nongenealogists understand the power of words. A named collection conveys authority and value. Instantly, it’s no longer someone else’s “stuff.” The box of old photos and letters has become the John and Rebecca Miller Papers or The Stevenson Family Collection, a personal or family archive of value. A personal connection to that box of old papers makes it harder for someone to throw away John and Becky Miller’s old love letters.
2. Copy and isolate newspaper clippings.
I was surprised to learn that many archives, including the <b><a href=”http://www.americanancestors.org”>New England Genealogical and Historic Society library</a></b> in Boston, won’t accept newspapers as part of donated collections. The typical high acid content of 20th-century newspapers makes them toxic to any other photos and ephemera they come into contact with.
3. Encapsulate unstable mementos.
When you want to preserve an item that’s unstable from an archival standpoint, such as a newspaper birth announcement or pressed flower, along with an item you want to protect, such as a baby book scrapbook, you can prevent acid migration and further damage by encapsulating the toxic item. This is an especially good technique to use in your scrapbooks, which often include all kinds of potentially damaging materials, such as newspaper clippings (see tip No. 1), receipts and matchbooks.
4. Keep letters and envelopes together in archival folders.
Handwritten letters and stamped envelopes are becoming increasingly collectible as our correspondence moves to email and text messages. You can best preserve your family’s old letters by doing a little prep work before you place them in archival storage.
5. Scan photos and documents only once, at high resolution.
It’s so tempting to quickly scan and email an old photo or document as needed, but each time you handle the item, the oils from your hands and the light exposure of a scanner speed its deterioration (not to mention the potential for accidental tearing or other damage). You can’t eliminate the effects of time, but you can limit how much you touch the materials in your family archive.
6. Dry or freeze wet photos ASAP.
Pipes burst, storms hit, accidental spills happen—sometimes to your family archive. Don’t panic. If your photos become wet, you’ll need to dry them as quickly as possible to minimize the growth of mold or mildew. But wet photos are fragile, so handle them gently. Air-drying is best. Use clothespins to hang your photos by their edges from an indoor clothesline where air can circulate, or place them in a single layer on clean, absorbent paper or cloth. Run a fan (aimed above the photos, not on them) to keep air moving.
7. Remove photos from “magnetic” albums—today.
Practical Archivist blogger Sally Jacobs has great advice for using those “magnetic” photo albums: Don’t! Photos stuck between an adhesive-covered album page and the thin plastic cover sheet will fade and yellow in only a few years. Even worse, your photos can become tightly stuck to the adhesive. If That’s already happened to you, Jacobs suggests removing photos from the sticky pages with the help of a microspatula, a metal tool that looks like a miniature pancake turner. If possible, insert the thin, flat edge of the microspatula between the photo and the album page to gently free the photo from the page. Carefully scrape away any sticky residue from the back of the photo before scanning the picture and placing it in an archival sleeve or envelope. Don’t stack the image with other photos; any remaining adhesive could ruin them.
8. Use a tripod and camera to quickly digitize large albums.
Three camera accessories can save you time when you’re digitizing a photo album: a standard tripod, a small flexible tripod and a shutter remote.
9. Store antique quilts on an unused bed.
One of the best places to store antique quilts, tablecloths and other large textiles is on an unused bed. Spread out the quilt, cover it with a clean white sheet and keep the cat off the bed, and you can feel good about extending the life of your family treasures.
10. Clean textiles before storing.
Before you pack away the baby’s first hand-knit sweater or your aunt’s needlepoint pillow, take time to carefully wash or dry clean your treasure. Although it may look, feel and even smell clean, anything that’s been worn or handled has gathered skin oils and other contaminants that are attractive to textile pests. Moths, silverfish and carpet beetles love slightly soiled clothing, knits, woolens and cottons. The best defense is to store only clean items and to regularly vacuum and air out your storage area. Check for any sign of infestation and take prompt action to get rid of problems. Note that mothballs are toxic to human health and should be used with care.
11. Vacuum heirlooms with a diffuser.
12. Avoid furniture polish.
Don’t use furniture polish and modern cleaners on heirloom wood furniture, case clocks or musical instruments. The ingredients in most of these cleaners don’t help preserve old wood. It’s better to dust the wood with a soft microfiber cloth and if necessary to restore shine, apply furniture paste wax annually.
13. Beware of glass display cases.
I always thought glass-front display cabinets were the perfect way to preserve old treasures—until I saw firsthand the damage they can cause. In museums, display cases are dimly lit and the artifacts they hold are rotated back into storage. But at home, glass cases leave the contents vulnerable to prolonged light exposure.
14. ID removable storage devices.
Have you ever walked away from a library microfilm reader or copier and left your flash drive behind? I have. But thanks to a tip from the Family History Library volunteer who helped me get it back, I now worry less about losing my flash drive.
15. Check date and time settings on your digital camera.
Digital files are more useful and easier to find with labels, keywords and other information added to the metadata in your photo organizing software. But the most important piece of metadata is the date and time the digital camera automatically sets. If this information is wrong, your pictures can end up categorized with the wrong year, month or date. Twice a year, when you change your clocks for daylight saving time, make sure your cameras are set to the correct date and time. Confirm that the settings are correct when you import your first new digital images to your computer.
From the January/February 2015 Family Tree Magazine