March 2011 Family Archivist

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium

Ask the Archivist: Saving scrapbooks

Scrapbooks can be gold mines of genealogical information—but the variety of materials they hold can make them problematic to preserve. “Scrapbooks present a lot of preservation challenges, and there are very few solutions to them beyond the basics of storage, storage, storage,” says Margaret Burzynski-Bays, curator of manuscripts at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland Here’s her advice for at-home archivists.

Q. How can I tell whether an old scrapbook is archivally sound?

A. Assume it’ll be in bad shape if it was made before the 1980s—that includes the cover, binding, pages, glue and ink. For example, albums with pages like black construction paper and those sticky “magnetic” albums are both highly acidic.

Q. Should I try to remove the contents?

A. You don’t necessarily want to take the album apart, because that can do more harm than good. Proper storage is the key. Keep the book in an acid-free box, and store it at a constant temperature and humidity in an interior closet with no pipes in the walls (not in your attic or basement).

Q. Then how can I safeguard what’s inside?

A. If there are photographs or news clippings, slide a piece of acid-free, lignin-free paper in between pages so the items won’t damage what’s on the opposing page when the book is closed. (This is called interleaving.)

Q. What if something is loose or falling out?

A. Don’t use adhesive remover. If you can get your hand or a microspatula underneath something and you feel it will pop off easily, it’s probably worth removing. Put it in an acid-free, lignin-free folder or envelope and slide it back into its original slot between the scrapbook pages.

Q. If I use folders or interleaving sheets, the album gets so thick it won’t close. Suggestions?

A. You may need to unbind it, but that’s not a bad thing, because the binding is probably not archivally sound anyway. Then trim the pages as needed, and slide them into polypropylene sleeves that can be assembled into an acid-free book. Don’t get emotionally attached to the cover and binding itself, but if you must keep it, put it in a separate acid-free box.

Q. Shouldn’t I try to reorganize loose contents chronologically?

A. Try to preserve the original order, because it gives you an idea of what the scrapbook creator was thinking at the time. If you want to rearrange the contents, go ahead and scan the whole thing, and then work with reproductions.

Q. There are hair and teeth samples in the album. What do I do with those?

A. Here at the historical society, we remove them, but there are people who want to keep them. If you remove the samples, keep them in an acid-free envelope or folder. If you leave them in, put tissue between the pages, store the book upright, and don’t squish it (teeth, especially, will make indentations).

Q. How do I preserve captions for an artifact removed from its original position?

A. Scan it so you can match that artifact with its caption. Or copy the text on acid-free paper and slide it in a folder with the item. If it’s a photograph, you can write the caption on the back of the photo with a No. 1 pencil.

Q. What if the album is moldy or mildewed?

A. Don’t attempt to take care of it yourself. Hire a professional conservator, and keep it away from everything else you own. Never store things in Ziplock bags. It’s the worst thing you can do—you’re trapping any moisture in there where mold can thrive.

Q. I’m redoing an album entirely. What suggestions do you have?

A. Get an acid-free archival scrapbook from an archival supply vendor. Don’t glue, cut or laminate original photos or memorabilia (use copies). Photocopy news clippings, which deteriorate quickly, and keep the originals in separate acid-free folders. If you use protective sleeves over the album pages, they need to be open at one end, to allow paper and photos to breathe.

Resource Roundup


Archival Action: Scrapbook preservation

Take these protective measures for albums made more than 20 years ago, or any scrapbooks showing signs of deterioration.

  1. Digitize the album’s contents. Do a full-page scan to capture object placement and captions, and scan important photos and memorabilia individually for higher-resolution reproduction. Preserve page numbering in the names of your digital files.
  2. Evaluate the album. Is the binding deteriorating or made of a potentially harmful material such as plastic? If yes, carefully slice the pages from the binding with a utility knife. Keep the pages in order. If needed, temporarily place the pages in acid-free folders so loose items stay with the correct pages.
  3. If you aren’t separating the binding, interleave tissue between album pages. Place loose contents in acid-free file folder inserts, and slide the inserts between pages in the correct locations (if known).
  4. Evaluate pages and protective sleeves: Are they sticky, brittle, browning or made of unsafe materials? If so, carefully remove loose objects from their pages. Then trim pages around contents that are firmly stuck to the page (be careful not to cut into objects on the back sides of double-sided pages). Again, be sure to keep the page contents together.
  5. If contents will be stored long-term in folders, put any loose items in sleeves to prevent contact with other items in the folder.
  6. If you’re making a new album, purchase materials (binding, pages, protective sleeves, photo corners) from a reputable archival vendor. Reproduce pages with the original page order, object placement and captions.
  7. Store the album in an acid-free box away from direct light, humidity and extreme temperatures.
Heirloom ID: Nothing to Sneeze At 


Handkerchiefs were more than just an ancestor to today’s box of Kleenex. Starting around 1760, printed kerchiefs were produced to commemorate wars, political campaigns and large events such as World’s Fair expositions—they provided an affordable and—more important—a permanent, substantial souvenir.

Printers used fabrics such as silk, cotton, linen or calico. You usually can determine age by the subject matter of the portraits and scenes. Many American servicemen purchased Asian-motif silk handkerchiefs during World War II and the Korean War. Made of thin, purple silk, this kerchief commemorates William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and was most likely sold at one of his “Wild West” shows, which toured the globe in various forms from 1883 to 1913.

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From the March 2011 Family Tree Magazine