Save Your Life by Preserving Important Family Documents

A vital element of recording and preserving your family stories is gathering all of your family’s family documents: birth, marriage & death certificates back to at least your maternal and paternal grandparents and forward to your grandchildren. Have you worked out a system for storing and saving these invaluable paper documents? Initially a simple drop file system will enable you to have a separate folder for each person, but ultimately, all such documents will need to be scanned and digitised and preserved future generations of your family.

Once you have scanned all of the photos and documents associated with your family, the digitised versions are available to all of your immediate and extended family members. The question then arises of how to preserve the originals?

Paper documents need to be carefully handled (using special white cotton gloves to prevent any smudges from your fingers) and stored inside a Mylar sleeve (available from specialist archive outlets). These sheets can then be safely stored in an archive-quality ring folder or box and kept in a cool, dry and stable environment. Ensure that all pages have been carefully unfolded and any extra materials (paper clips, rubber bands, staples or old folders) removed.

Newsprint should be isolated because it is highly acidic and will stain adjacent paper. Newspaper clippings can be replaced with photocopies on alkaline paper or placed into a separate storage envelope. Treat faxes the same way.

When writing any identifying marks on your old documents or photos, please ensure you use a No. 2 pencil and write in the lower right margin. Never use ballpoint or felt-tip pens that might ‘bleed’ or stain. Old photographs should be carefully removed from their frames or photo albums, as the papers and glues used in the past were usually acidic. Many ‘magnetic’ albums have adhesives on poor quality backing pages that may cause prints to discolour and stick.

Archive suppliers have special three-ring albums with plastic pages which are suitable for precious photos. Don’t use pressure-sensitive tapes, rubber cement or damaging glues as these will damage your photos. Use the special tape as advised by your archive supplier, who can advise on the correct storage for most family memorabilia.

What other documents associated with your family should you be preserving?

  • Education – school reports and certificates, diplomas, degrees and apprenticeship documents;
  • Legal – wills, mortgages, land title certificates and similar documents;
  • Personal – letters, diaries, journals, postcards;
  • Publicity – newspaper or magazine articles written about any member of your family;
  • Financial – business journals, price lists, bills of sales, dockets and receipts, bank records.
  • Religious – baptism and other religious ceremony certificates, holy pictures, prayer books and the family Bible.

The keys to saving your old family documents, photographs and memorabilia are organisation and preservation. Do it now, before your precious papers are ravaged by time.

Annie Payne, Personal Historian since 1988, History from the Heart,

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