Caring For Your Personal Collections

Almost everyone has a stack of family papers or photographs that need to be kept safe. Maybe it’s a box of family records you cleaned out of the attic, or a collection of old scrapbooks with photos. Even if you don’t recognize anyone, you still don’t dare throw them out. So what do you do now?

Most of us know we should “do something eventually” about these family artifacts. With the high cost of safe storage supplies, most people procrastinate and just leave the items in their current state. There’s also the “learning curve,” where most of us don’t know the difference between a polypropylene sleeve and a lignen-free cardboard box.

I’m not one for spending money foolishly, so this article is designed to share tips I’ve come up with for securing a personal collection of precious artifacts on a thin budget. Some of my choices over the years may not please the ‘purists,’ but I’ll share my reasoning and let you be the judge.

Cardboard Boxes… Not a Safe Bet

The problem with cardboard boxes, even the nicer Banker Boxes that are sold for keeping your business records, is that the manufacturing process relies on an economical wood pulp which contains “lignin,” which produces acidic fumes that will severely damage your paper, fabric, and other delicate contents. That’s why archival products are labeled “Lignin-Free” so you can tell the difference. Often times, those cute little keepsake boxes you see at Michael’s and A.C. Moore with sturdy walls and a nice lid are loaded with lignin. Rule of thumb: if it doesn’t say “lignin free” or “archival safe” or some equivalent, then you must assume the worst.

I have to admit I will occasionally use these sturdy, small boxes for certain items that are not so prone to “fume damage,” such as items made of glass, metal, wood, etc. I’ve also decided to store old newspapers in some of the better keepsake storage boxes because newspapers are inherently gassy in and of themselves.  One thing I never store in these non-archival keepsake boxes are photographs and letters. It is worth it, I believe, to make a once-in-a-lifetime purchase of safe storage boxes for your family’s most precious visual records.

Sleeves… So Many Choices!

Often a family will put photos in albums and leave the negatives to rot in the leftover envelopes which were notoriously high in pulp. If you have any of these from “back in the days” before digital cameras, you have a nice project ahead of you. As source documents, these are absolutely worth saving because they are even more detailed than your prints, and they can be scanned at high resolution to make incredible reprints.

As an amateur photographer for many years, I have used a variety of film stock and was an early adopter of the negative sleeves offered by a company called “PrintFile.” I’m not endorsing them, just pointing out that they are one of my favorites and have the widest selection of sizes.

What To Do With All Those Papers…

I save a lot of paper, from interesting family letters to curious-looking letterhead. I like to save handbills, postcards, matchbook covers, old ticket stubs, and so on. One thing that works for me are economy-weight archival sleeves that are easily found at office supply stores. They are called “Sheet Protectors” and are great for organizing your paper into three-ring binders. A bit of advice: Don’t fool with the heavyweight stuff, they take up twice the amount of room on your shelf. The ones I buy generally come in packs of 200 sleeves for about $15.

Sometimes I will maximize the page space by using safe poly sleeves originally intended for small 4×6 photo albums which are “2-up” meaning I can remove the non-safe white paper insert from each slot and stack two small items into one page sleeve. It’s very cheap to buy an album either new or at a yard sale, but just remember to remove the white paper inserts.

As for binders, I am not a purist. There is a layer of protection around each piece of paper in your binder, so I go for the left-over binders from the office, the ones that can’t be used again and are getting thrown out. Or I find a box of binders at a yard sales for about two dollars. Seriously, why pay full retail on something you can find practically for free?

Papers come in all sizes, so there will be a need for specialty sleeves. You can find these for anything from sports cards to post cards – even for long, horizontal pockets used to hold odd-shaped scouting patches. Seriously, there is a sleeve for just about every shape and size out there.

I find good success on Ebay, but just be sure to get polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene. Anything with the word “vinyl” in it is probably not going to be safe for papers.

Storage of Clothing or Large Items

There are many clear plastic storage tubs on the market that do not have the destructive fumes of earlier plastic tubs. If you research this, you will find that a lot of tubs are not constructed of vinyl plastics these days, but are made of the “poly” varieties. Generally, if you go with the extremely clear products, you’re “closer to safe” than if you use the colored, or milky opaque tubs. I have, for example, my father’s WWII dress jacket stored flat in a large, under-the-bed clear tub with cover, and there are actually some air holes in the design I found near the wheels. So there is no excessive build-up of harmful fumes. I also used an acid-free wrapping paper, obtained from an online Ebay seller, to wrap the coat first. Compared to simply hanging this in the closet on a hanger, I’ve already improved my chances a great deal. Is it the best solution? Probably not, but I’m able to sleep at night.

The Big “No-No” – Magnetic Albums

These first came out in the 70s and everyone used them. They are still in production and people are fooled into buying them even today, despite many warnings to never use them! “Magnetic” pages are nothing more than waxy surfaces which make your paper or photo stick without moving around. There is usually an acceptable clear poly cover that wraps around the whole page to keep everything “safe.” The problem is, you have used an unsafe adhesive method that has forever stuck to your precious artifact. So, these do more damage than good.

Your document, in addition be having a permanent waxy back, are usually damaged severely by pulling and twisting when you try to remove it after many years of compact storage. The card stock in the pages is also loaded with acid-emitting lignin. There are just not enough bad things to say about this contraption, just don’t use it.

If you have inherited an album like this, I found a site for helping you make decisions about whether to remove the photos or just leave them in place:

Removing Photos from Sticky Photo Albums

Links of Interest:

I am not the expert in this field, but there are several great resources where you can do your own reading, in order to make informed decisions about your collection. Enjoy!

National Archives – “How to Preserve Family Papers and Photographs”

Gaylord Archival – “Guide to Collections Care”

Printfile Website – Source for Photographic Sleeves

Website – How to Digitally Archive and Share Historical Photographs, Documents, and Audio Recordings (Chapter 1. Basic Principles of Archiving Photographs and Documents)

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