How to Look after your Family Documents

Every family has a history, and over the years, we have helped many people uncover fascinating insights into theirs. Our research options cater for every budget.

You may have in your possession several precious family documents, which can vary in age, condition and type. If you are lucky, you may have deeds written on parchment, wills or other legal documents, family letters, original certificates, newspaper cuttings etc.

The next step is to identify what you have, their condition, and how to preserve the different documents you hold.

Basic preservation: (links to suppliers is provided at the end)

  • Wash your hands before handling anything
  • Don’t have drinks or food near your documents
  • Remove staples carefully, using either a small scissors or a staple remover
  • Use plastic or brass paperclips instead
  • Don’t use rubber bands to keep bundles of documents together, these disintegrate over time and stick to documents: use unbleached cotton tying tape instead – usually comes in a roll
  • If a document is particularly fragile or important, consider scanning it and use the copy, place the original in an archival polyester pocket
  • Use pencils at all times, HB should be fine, 2B if the paper is particularly dark Remove paper clips unless they are made of brass (they rust over time)
  • Never use sellotape to repair documents, see below an example of what happens to the paper after a while
  • If one or several documents are damaged and you would like to have them repaired, you can ask your local archive for help
  • In the UK, Record Offices or Borough Archives often have a Conservator and should provide advice free of charge; they may also be able to offer to carry out the repair for a small fee or recommend someone who can.

For instance, the West Yorkshire Archive Service offer the following services:

  • Conservation of books, paper and parchment documents, seals, maps, prints and watercolors
  • Archival boxes, folders, sleeves made to measure
  • In-house micro-filming, duplication or scanning of documents
  • Advice on archival storage, exhibitions and environmental management.
  • In the U.S.A or Australia, contact your local or State Archives for advice.
  • For very fragile documents, polyester pockets are best
  • Use plastic paper clips to keep loose sheets together
  • Pencils are the best way to make notes, preferably on the folders, although they can be used for brief notes on the actual document, i.e. to mark a reference number, a name or a date
  • Consider placing them in an acid free box
  • Store them preferably somewhere cool and dark
  • Consider digitising the most fragile documents and printing a good copy for handling; if they are particularly fragile, and you are concerned about digitising them yourself, contact your local archives for advice
  • Some suppliers only supply in bulk, i.e. 100 folders, which is more than what most people require. Get together with other family historians to share the cost or offer to sell the surplus to your local family history society.

Do you have photographs in your collections and would like advice on how to preserve these?
Check my last blog 'How to Look After your Family Photographs' which deals specifically with this medium.

Bloodlines Ancestry has many years of expertise helping family historians.

What Next?

Do you have a brick wall in your family tree? Not sure how to continue your journey? We can help you break through!

Links to Resources and Suppliers:
  • Cyndi's List names suppliers and services for UK and USA, butbeware, some links are no longer valid

United Kingdom:

U.S.A.

USA local archives services:

The USA is lucky to have the Regional Alliance for Preservation (RAP), which lists Archives both public and private who offer conservation advice and services (see 'services' section):
http://www.rap-arcc.org/services

Australia

Canada

The Canadian State Archives give a list of suppliers:
https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Organizing_Your_Home_Base,_Genealogical_Supplies_(National_Institute)

If all else fails, you can always use an internet engine to search for 'Archival supplies' in your country!

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