Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Conservation conversation

You are surely aware by now that one of my favorite rants is about how difficult it is to get organized and stay that way. Another, of course, is how many so-called “family trees” are found on the Internet without a scrap of evidence to back them up.

But there is another matter which is really important to me: the safekeeping of family documents and artifacts.

How I wince to see photos stuck in those gummy albums, with waxy “magnetic” strips that eventually work their way into the photo backing itself, holding it in a death grip. I had a mild tantrum once, at the library where I worked, when I noticed some unique local history materials thumbtacked to the wall in a display case. And we have all seen the results of misguided mending efforts, which create more long-term damage than they are intended to cure.

For the gummy albums I can pass along a possible solution -- dental floss is said to be sometimes helpful in breaking the bond between photograph and album page. Someone also has suggested using a hair dryer to soften the wax, but I would go easy on that -- test to see if the heat has adverse effects before doing a full scale rescue.

As for the question of displaying items without stabbing them with tacks -- documents and photographs can be placed in sheet protectors, available at stationery stores, and the tacks stuck through the plastic, not the contents (but be sure the display is out of range of bright sunlight or extremes of heat, cold, or moisture). A new commercial item which recently caught my eye is the “MagTack,” manufactured under the Oxo brand name. It is in two parts: a tack with a magnetic head, and a companion magnet that adheres to it. The display item is held securely between the two well-designed pieces, apparently no bigger than a standard pushpin. The Mag-Tack is supposed to be available in June of this year.

Instead of mending a torn item with the standard sticky tape, you may want to photocopy it, then put it gently in a archivally-safe envelope or sheet protector, or look for an archivally-approved mending tape. (Though some conservators advise against using any tape at all, and are suspicious of the term “archivally safe”)

There are websites which deal with the problems of preservation. The Practical Archivist is one. ( The author is sensible but sassy. (If you thought archivists were dull, think again.) Other websites include: Library of Congress information on paper preservation ( Document and preservation FAQ by Linda L. Beyea (, and an site called Preservation links and resources. (The Sonoma County library system subscribes to Ancestry, so you can look this up at your local branch.)

In case you have trouble with any of these links, just Google a few key words, with the + sign in between, or enter relevant phrases, enclosed in quotation marks.

There are sources for purchasing genuine archival materials: acid-free paper and enclosures, sheet protectors and the like. More about these next time.

In every case, preservation’s guiding principles are: do no harm, and be sure your mending or storage methods are reversible (in case, at some future date, a better method is developed). NO LAMINATION. No sticky tape, paper clips, pins, or rubber bands. Inherently unstable materials like newspaper clippings and old color snapshots should be copied, with the originals stored away in the dark.

As family historians, we obviously are looking into the past, but we need to think of the future as well. That’s why preservation of our precious documents and artifacts is so important.

1 comment:

Sally J. said...


Speaking of tantrums...

I was in a store last summer that was selling sticky magnetic albums (what I call The Chemical Sandwich of Doom) that were labeled as "archival" and "photo safe."

About 30 seconds into my total fit, my husband gently but firmly escorted me out of the store before I embarrassed him any further. I would have taken a picture but I didn't have a camera on me.

I'm glad you found the information on my blog helpful. And thanks for calling me sassy. I love it!


Sally J.
The Practical Archivist