Friday, July 27, 2012

Family History, or How I Learned to Stop Ignoring It and Worry About Everything

Family history, like its counterpart--family reunions--is a pretty delicate subject. At age 13 or so, I watched my mother gathering, leafing through, and storing away original family history documents one evening and boldly asked her, "Why  are you doing that? They're all dead anyway!" After a moment of shock, she explained to me through gritted teeth the importance of preserving our past so other people would have a chance to look at it one day. Many like to know where they come from, they like to have a traceable history and see how the threads of the world gradually tangle headphone wire in a pocket.

10 years later, at the revelation that I would be a historian and archivist, she asked me, "Why are you studying that? They're all dead anyway!" We have pretty lively jokes that my entire career and academic interest is now dead people despite my outcry against her doing the same a decade previous. I do not, apparently, fall far from the apple tree.

So when my Nana offered me the most precious item in her collection, and my mother finally passed on the two beloved items that were passed down to her, I was a bit shocked, but completely excited and recognized the opportunity to take the skills I learned in college and apply them in my own home. In addition to those three things, I also received my own history: papers, award plaques, Pokemon cards, and all my artwork. I have to say, I was most excited to see my Pokemon cards out of all that list because I thought they would be the first thing to go to trash, and all I wanted was to tease Bear by sorting and decking my childish Pokemon cards next to his impressive 10 boxes of Magic that I give him all sorts of hell for keeping despite playing rarely.

Bear, on the other hand, has his Grandfather's wallet, pipe stand, and (I've been corrected here...) GREAT grandfather's straight razors for now, and hopes to collect more as time goes on. He really likes family history, too. Having an archivist in the Home who knows a few things about preservation, he says, is pretty handy.

Preservation of documents is pretty straight forward, while preservation of items is a bit trickier. Especially the big ones. So I'm going to impart a few tips to you that I learned in my classes so that you can protect your family history for the future. This is not a complete list, and if you have any tips or corrections, please let me know. After all, I still consider myself a student even if I'm not in class anymore!

  • Unless you've got a professional archive to store your papers/photos in, home will have to be the next best thing. Given the right tools, space, and care, the only thing you have more a chance of than a professional archive is theft, fire, water damage, and other acts of God, as they say. You could store them in a bank, if you're concerned the household isn't safe enough, but you should still follow some key rules:
  • Handle photos with care. Wash your hands in non-scented soap, and put on a pair of nitrile gloves. The "white glove treatment" is actually used far less often today thanks to improvements in glove technology. White cotton gloves reduce tactile sensation and encourage rips and tears because you handle things with a rough touch to make up for the fact that you can't really feel anything. Fingers are very sensitive and require a lot of input to be delicate. Go with nitrile if in doubt. 
  • Scan, scan, scan. If you can, try to get your history into a digital format and make a DVD or CD back-up for good measure. Key of Three is safe (digital, current media, original). So, keep around a hard-drive with a high-quality (300+ dpi) JPEG copy, a gold CD or DVD copy, and then store away the original somewhere safe. 
  • Purchase acid-free containers, folders, boxes, and anything else. People are really getting into scrapbooking, and luckily that means the crafting industry is paying attention and dispersing more products that keep your precious moments safe and healthy. If you want to put photos or documents in a book, that's fine...but get a book that uses acid-free paper and binding, and choose acid-free photo corners over glue or tape. Ripped documents can be repaired with archival-grade tape if needed. 
  • Try not to write on documents, especially photos, even on the back. Write underneath on a page or on the tabs of folders in pencil. If you have to write on the original document, it in pencil. Pen should NEVER be used. Pens are evil. This goes for the CD/DVD's as well. Writing on the media will eventually ruin it, even if you write on the "safe" side. Opt to put the CD/DVD in an acid-free sleeve with the necessary information written in pencil on the sleeve's front. 
  • Separate or mist! You may be using acid-free paper, but mass produced things do not. If you can, get acid-free spray (like Tums, but for books!) at your local crafting store and mist each page and side. It will help. Do not spray photos. Let them dry and then put them into acid-free folders. For extremely delicate paper (like old newspaper or onion-skin), I wouldn't even mist...I would just separate them from other stacks of paper with other folders or acid-free pages in between.
  • Attics and basements are not a safe choice of location to store your documents. Attics get blisteringly hot and cold and have poor humidity control. Basements are usually cold, damp, and have lots of bugs that would just love to eat your stuff. Under beds, as I found out, is also a bad place. Anywhere that is constantly dark is usually bad, because there be dragons (aka bugs). This is the tricky part, because old photos (silver nitrate, I'm lookin' at you) deteriorate no matter what you do. And they SMELL bad when they do. Newer photos don't smell as bad when this happens. Paper is usually fine. So find a desk or a drawer or a plastic box you can keep this in that would protect the documents and their acid-free container from water/bug damage. Not a lot withstands fire. Sorry, folks.


  • These are tricker, because they have wide-ranging materials and have depth and dimension. Use caution, but do have some (safe) fun.
  • Document! It's a good idea to document the items and keep them with your other documents so you don't lose track or the history of the item.
  • Keep it out of direct sunlight and try to find a display place that is not in line with a heating/cooling duct. If you can, try to keep the room it's in at a "just right" temperature without too much or too little humidity. In the case of wood, this is very important, because swelling and shrinking will eventually wear it down and could cause cracking.
  • Velvet is as velvet does, what velvet does is off-gas. This is bad, especially for metal, but mostly for everything. Sure, velvet looks soooo pretty...that deep, nearly inescapable softness and the way light just gets sucked into it and makes the display item glow. But it WILL destroy your stuff and you won't get it back. Metal will tarnish if wrapped in velvet and it's hard to get off, if at all. Everything else will just break down. Avoid velvet as a display rest and opt for something else. 
  • Let there be light, but not too much, please, and make sure it isn't too hot. Small LED lights positioned high enough that it doesn't bake the item, but close enough to illuminate it, are great. Even a stand with LEDs along the edge are okay. Just make sure it isn't too hot and to turn it off at night so the item gets some rest from all the commotion. 
  • Clean and dust often and make sure not to use any strong chemicals. Windex is not good for wood. Actually, neither is Pledge! Look for the expensive, small bottles of cleaner at your store. Murphy's Oil Soap is fantastic for wood (protection and shine!) and for silver, Hagerty's is what I used for my silver instruments. It won't take much to clean, so a small bottle or jar will last you a long time. Don't be too abrasive. Use a very soft cloth, and follow the directions.
  • Use common sense at all times. Is your Nana's china vase really safe on top of that wobbly bookcase? Is Great Grandpop's globe a good decoration for a child's room? Only you can prevent losing your items to bad decisions. As the Ghosthunters used to say, "When in doubt. Get the hell out." This is good advice all around. So when you have doubts, trust your gut and get your item the hell out into a safer, cleaner place.
This was a long posting, but in the face of having to take care of some very special family history, I decided it might be a neat precursor to my soon-to-be framing and display project I'll be putting on here. Don't worry, you'll get to see what I received. I can't wait to show you!

Happy preservations!

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