Preserving your memories: The personal artifact

Written by Jennifer Winkler, Library Services Assistant, Symmes Township Branch 

Many of us have collections of materials that are important to us… photographs, scrapbooks, diaries, concert ticket stubs, etc. These collections have an emotional value and tell something about who you are and may have been handed down from your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. We want our collections to last at least our lifetime and hopefully for those of our children and grandchildren.  

The biggest threat to your collections is an attack from the environment…. or simply put, a poor storage environment. You can extend the longevity of your materials in measures both small and large. Any improvement in how you store your ephemera will add that much more to their lifespan. Improvement is additive: the more you do, the longer it will last.  

The simplest and best protection is a cool, dry, and stable location in your house… yes, that rules out the basement and the attic! The optimal temperature is 55-70° F and 30-50 percent relative humidity. But you may not want your house to feel like a meat locker, so even small environmental improvements can help significantly, especially, moderating large temperature and humidity.  

Heat and humidity speed up the deterioration of all man-made materials. So does light, especially direct sunlight and unshielded fluorescent lighting, so minimize exposure wherever you decide to store your collections. 

Good housekeeping is paramount to longevity: mold will consume cellulose, stain items, and is notoriously difficult to remove. Dust is not only abrasive but may contain mold spores and provides an additional surface for it to grow on.

Structural damage to ephemera occurs through mechanical stresses, so remove paperclips, staples and rubber bands. Consider storing your items unfolded; paper products will often break along fold lines from repeated folding and unfolding.

When handling your items use clean, dry hands and avoid lotions, hand sanitizers, and nail polish.

And finally, pests and insects will make a meal of your treasures or use them as nesting materials. So try to mitigate them as much as possible. 

Next, choose the enclosures in which to store your items. Enclosures provide structural support and protection from the environment. Think about your object and its intended use: is it something you display, bring out often to share with family and friends, or store away? With this in mind, consider what the needs or requirements of the enclosure are in order to achieve this use.

Just a word of warning, this is the part of preserving your items that could get expensive. How much you ultimately spend is something you will need to decide for yourself.  You can find several reputable archival supply stores online; Just Google “archival supplies.”

Whatever you use to store your items must not cause further damage. The storage material that comes in direct contact with your items will have the greatest impact because poor quality materials could actually speed or cause deterioration.

You have a choice between paper or plastic-based materials such as envelopes, tissue paper, paper and cardstock, folders, boxes, etc. Plastic enclosures should be inert, that is, they won’t chemically react, and can be made of polypropylene, polyethylene or archival polyester but absolutely no PVCs. 

You know that “old book smell”?  A lot of people think that it is mold or mildew, but it is actually the breakdown of lignin in wood pulp. When this breaks down, it creates an acid that causes the paper to become brittle and yellow, and if used as an enclosure, the acid will migrate – damaging and accelerating the deterioration of your collection items.

Preservation friendly paper-based enclosures should be acid-free and lignin-free and optimally pH buffered (that means calcium carbonate was added to the manufacture to neutralize acids). If the product specifications don't mention any of this, it means it's not there. Quality, preservation friendly enclosures, no matter if it is paper or plastic-based, will be clearly stated. I’m always suspicious of what a product listing doesn't say. I’ve noticed some well-known office supply stores that list folders as “archival” and yet the specs only note that they are acid-free. Acid-free means that it was only so at the time of manufacture; the product still contains lignin, which will degrade to an acid.  

Paper collection items should be housed and supported to prevent bending and slouching, depending on size, either flat (large items) or well supported vertically for smaller items. Similar sized items should be housed together so no inadvertent creasing happens from the mismatch of size.

Photographic negatives should be stored separately from prints and storage materials of both of these, in addition to being preservation friendly, must have passed the P.A.T., the Photographic Activity Test, which is extensive testing to ensure that the material does not chemically react with photographic materials.  

Magnetic tape or analog recordings (i.e. VHS tapes, reel-to-reel, etc.) should be removed from the paper/cardboard packaging and stored, vertically, in preservation friendly housing. The original packaging should be stored separately, as is it more than likely acidic and will damage the tape.  

Vinyl records are relatively inert and can be stored in their original packaging, but should be stored well vertically, well supported.

Textiles should, preferably, be stored flat. If the size necessitates folding, make sure the weight of the material does not cause creasing by cushioning the layers with preservation friendly shredded tissue. Oversized textiles, such as quilts, can be loosely rolled on a supportive tube with preservation friendly paper, like a jelly roll.

Finally, if you want to display your keepsakes, just remember your environment and keep it out of direct sunlight and away from heat and water sources. You may want to consider framing your display item.  At a minimum, your framed item should have an acid-free mat and backing, UV coated glass and a dust cover on the back.