Protecting the Records of Our Past

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Contributor: Rev. Arthur W. Swarthout
Published on: September 3, 2002
Reprinted in the New Hampshire Genealogical Newsletter

Paper is the key to our entities as genealogists. We are always looking through documents, newspapers, books and records. Paper has some key enemies, Acid, Metal and Light. Here are some ideas and suggestions to help you save these for future generations.


1) Remove all metal. No metal should be stored in contact with paper. Rust will scar and mark paper, leaving it more fragile and stained. Remove all paper clips and staples from documents and pamphlets. This is even more critical when there are metallic inks or seals involved. Dissimilar metals will react with each other, causing oxidation (rust!) and eating away things around them.

2) Use Acid Free storage containers. Obtain acid free folders and boxes to store and protect your documents. Archival suppliers will sell to individuals. You can obtain supplies from Archival Methods. They provide 5% of their sales to the Central European Archives flood relief program. Other suppliers are Gaylord and The Gemmary.

3) Don't mix newspaper and other documents! Newspapers of the 20th Century contain a high acid content that will bleed over into other papers, accelerating their deterioration. Your best bet for saving them is to copy the newspaper article onto acid free paper.

4) Flat is better! Open the document as much as possible, removing letters from envelopes and opening up folded pamphlets. We've all seen the worn away folds of a letter, causing that key date to literally disappeared into thin air.

5) I shudder when I see important document framed and displayed. Light is one of the enemies of paper and other materials, particularly those that have been duplicated using early methods with photosensitive paper. It causes the paper to brown and ink to fade.

6) Be clean! Original documents should really never be touched with bare hands. Gloves will protect the paper from the oils and acids of your fingers.

7) Record information about the items using acid free ink on the acid free folder or acid free envelope you are storing it in. Don't write on the picture itself! Have I mentioned that you want to avoid acid?

8) Keep it comfortable! If you wouldn't like to be stored that way, neither will the documents. They should not be too hot, or too cold, and certainly don't want to be damp or wet. Ideally the documents would be stored in dark, air tight, nitrogen filled, constant temperature and constant humidity environments. Given that this is not easy to find or afford, try to keep all things moderate.

Copy and Share!

This is one case where it is critical that you spread the wealth. Make copies! Photograph, photocopy and/or scan your important documents. And in a lesson often learned the hard way by the hundreds of county court houses that have burned to the ground, store the copies someplace else. Give them to another person, send them to a library or historical society, just don't keep them in the same place the originals are located!

Electronic mechanisms are more and more in use. Data is stored on hard drives all over the world. But hopefully you haven't experienced a crash! Save often and back it up! I highly recommend using a CD burner to save your files, pictures and documents on. Unlike diskettes and tapes, a CD is not susceptible to magnetic wiping and it has no moving parts. Properly set up, they can be read on any computer.


Often the documents we have are already abused and falling apart. It is very tempting to tape them together. In a word, DON'T! Never use tape to repair documents and photographs. If the document is important enough to repair, do it right! If it is relatively simple, you can buy acid-free tape with acid-free adhesives to put things back together, or stop it from tearing further. You can obtain supplies from the archive supply companies above. If it is a valuable document, contact historical societies and archives to locate a professional restoration specialist to do the work properly. And always document what you have done with an annotation on the folder or envelope. (Remember? Not on the document itself!)

Much of the information here came from discussions with my father, the Reverend Arthur W. Swarthout, who served for several years as the Assistant General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church and currently serves as the Director of the World Methodist Museum.

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Updated on 8/19/2006