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Caring for Family History

Many of us maintain family history collections, passed down from generation to generation. Whether in the form of family photo albums, boxes in the basement, books in the attic, or any number of other objects and documents, family history helps us understand and learn from the past. These items can also require special care to ensure their preservation.

Basic Collection Care

While caring for historic collections can seem daunting, there are simple steps that everyone can take to ensure the longevity of their family’s history. The most important thing to remember is that any amount of action is better than none when it comes to preserving objects and documents. No one is able to create the most perfect conditions for maintaining every piece of history, but even minor changes can seriously slow degradation. The factors that threaten historic collections are known as agents of deterioration, and the most threatening tend to be humidity, temperature, pests, and water. These four factors also exacerbate one another: a space that is warm and humid will be even more inviting to pests like bugs and rodents. To ward off deterioration, here are some basics to start with:

  • Transfer historic objects and papers out of old cardboard boxes or suitcases and into plastic cartons with tight-fitting lids. These storage cartons will keep out pests, and if they seal tightly enough, the cartons will also keep out water and dust. If the collection contains a large number of historic documents, photographs, or other paper-based materials, consider placing them in file folders to prevent creasing and tearing.
  • Basement and attic spaces experience the most extreme changes in temperature and humidity, making them less than ideal places to store collections. If possible, consider moving family treasures out of these spaces – linen closets, under beds, and out of the way shelves can all be good alternatives. If a basement is the only space available to store historic objects and documents, try to ensure that they are at least several inches off of the ground in case of flooding, and check frequently (5-6 times a year) for pest or mold activity.
  • Label objects, folders, and storage cartons with as much information as possible. That way, if disaster does occur and collections are damaged by flood or pests, or are simply lost for a period of time, the family will know what an item is, and have a better chance at repairing it.

There are many other free online resources about caring for family history. You can find tips, video tutorials, and further reading at the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s website. Learn more about preserving family archives from the National Archives and Records Administration.

Digital Preservation

When people think of their family history collections, they typically imagine the family photo albums, handmade quilts, and train tickets that were saved in the 19th and 20th centuries. But modern history is also family history: one day, our descendants will look back at the digital photographs, home videos, and email archives we leave behind with the hopes of learning about their own cultural heritage. While preserving digital objects require different care from their physical counterparts, the guiding principles are largely the same. Ensure that digital collections are stored safely and well-labelled, and check in on them frequently to confirm that they are still accessible.

  • Back up important files and photographs regularly. Ideally, this would mean backing up to more than one location, such as a cloud-based storage service, an external hard drive, or even a flash drive. In the event that a computer or phone dies, back-up files can save the day.
  • Label digital objects and collections. Descriptive file names, putting related items in folders together, and organizing folders logically can make collections more findable and preserve essential identifying information. 
  • Check on saved files regularly. As technology advances, some file formats are no longer supported and sometimes cannot be opened once a software stops recognizing an old format. 
  • Sometimes, the physical containers of digital content can also degrade, making the content impossible to view. VHS tapes, for instance, lose about 15% of their quality every 10-25 years, and can degrade to the point of being unusable. Consider transferring the content of older media types (like converting VHS tapes to DVDs).

Want to keep this information close at hand? Download a printable pamphlet with collections care information below.

Do your personal collections have a strong connection to Greenwich history? Consider donating to the Greenwich Historical Society collections.

Disaster Recovery: Flooding

Flooding is one of the primary risks to historical collections in coastal areas such as Greenwich. If your collections are damaged due to flooding, it is important to act quickly. While full recovery of historical documents and objects may require the work of a conservator, there are steps anyone can take to mitigate the loss. It is also important, however, to remember your own safety: face masks and vinyl gloves should be worn for your protection.

  • First, dry the items as much as possible. Remove the collection to a dry location and take piece out of water-damaged enclosures. Using superabsorbent sponges, absorbent paper, or unprinted paper towels, carefully remove moisture without rubbing. This might include draping a paper towel over a photograph and then carefully lifting away once the towel is saturated, interleaving absorbent paper in the pages of wet books, pressing a sponge into the crevices of any objects that have collected water, or laying textiles out on towels. If possible, set up fans and dehumidifiers to remove as much moisture as possible, but refrain from using heaters, as the heat can cause further warping and buckling. It’s also important to remember to keep identifying information with objects: if you remove a tag, or a folder, keep important information with the object as it dries.

  • Then, assess the damage. Are photographs curling? Do old documents now have tide lines? Did the ink of old journals run? It can be a good idea to make a basic list of items and the damage they’ve sustained, to give you a full picture of the situation and what kinds of damage you might search for more information about. Be aware that not all damage is immediately visible; books, textiles, and other organic objects have the potential to mildew when moisture activates mold spores. If you believe that an item may have active mold on it, it’s important to isolate it from other collection items. Moldy items can be sealed in a heavy duty garbage bag with packing tape, and then frozen in the freezer for a few days to kill mold. Mold testing kits can be purchased online, but be aware that these typically require sending samples to a lab for exact results.

  • Finally, preserve what you can. Once items are dried and there are no signs of mold, there might be other small issues that can be fixed at home. Warping or curling can be mitigated by holding a document flat with weights, separated by a piece of paper or paper towel. Discard enclosures like folders and boxes that were wet, making sure to record any identifying information that may have been recorded on them. Move the items into new folders and airtight bins once they are completely dry.

Some items may be beyond at-home recovery; if the documents are important and it is financially viable, you might consider reaching out to a conservator or the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) to clean or repair damaged items. You can also call the Curator of Library and Archives, Christopher Shields, at (203) 869-6899, ext. 23 with questions.