Ten Tips for Safely Storing Old Letters and Documents
According to curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, some modern papers “only have a lifespan of a few decades.” So, if you have precious letters or documents, what can you do to preserve and protect them?
1. Wash and fully dry your hands before handling letters and documents to minimize damage from oils or dirt. If letters or documents are particularly valuable, consider wearing cotton gloves.
2. Minimize sources of intense light, such as bright overhead lighting.
3. Remove rubber bands, ribbons, string, paper clips, staples, and self-adhesive notes. The Victoria & Albert Museum recommends taking photos of the binding before removing it so you have a detailed record of how, for example, a ribbon or string might have been tied.
4. Leave tears alone. Do not fix with adhesive tape.
5. If documents are folded, carefully unfold and press flat. If documents are rolled, you can use a “humidification method” to flatten. Here’s a link with details on the humidification method.
6. Create high-resolutions scans of the documents so you have a record of them. Be sure to back-up any scans.
7. According to Sara Markoe Hanson, director of the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society, the number one thing people need to avoid is moisture. “Nothing damages documents as badly, or as quickly, as moisture,” she told me. As romantic as the notion is of finding old letters or documents stuffed into a corner of a drafty old attic, letters and documents should be stored in a moisture- and humidity-controlled part of your home.
8. Ideally, letters and documents should be stored flat inside an acid- and lignin-free storage folders or pockets, then placed inside an archival box. Folders and pockets should be stored in a way so contents don’t slump and bend—this can be an issue if storing materials inside a file cabinet.
9. If you plan on placing multiple letters or documents inside each folder acid- and lignin-free storage folder, consider interleaving archival polyester film, chemically inert polyethelene, or acid-free tissue between documents. It’s important to use chemically inert, acid-free materials to avoid discoloration.
10. If you have a large collection of letters or documents, give thought to how you might organize and catalog them. Does it make sense to organize by date? By person? By location? By content? There is no right answer; it’s what is best for you.