Leaflet #3

"Preserving Your Family's Papers"

March 2000


This is the third of a series of technical leaflets that will be distributed by the ISU Special Collections Department through the ISU Extension Service. The Special Collections Department was founded in 1969, and collects papers, records, rare books, and other items that relate to Iowa State University, agriculture and rural life, and science and technology. As part of the Library’s mission, the Department would like to increase its outreach to the public about its work. These leaflets will cover a variety of topics, and are intended to assist Iowans in preserving their history by selecting and caring for papers, photographs and other items.


Leaflet #3 focuses on how to preserve your family papers. By following basic guidelines, considering their environment, and using proper storage techniques, you can ensure future generations are able to enjoy and share them, too.





Documents, manuscripts, maps, posters, ephemera, newspapers and postcards are made of paper. Paper will deteriorate without the appropriate protection. It is important family papers are stored in a cool, dark place with relatively stable temperature and relative humidity. It is especially important they not be stored in an attic, basement, or garage. Using storage folders and boxes to help protect papers from the environment will assist in their long-term preservation.


Providing a Protective Environment

  • Ideal relative humidity: approximately 40-55%
  • Ideal temperature: approximately 60-65 degrees
  • Consistent relative humidity and temperature is extremely important
  • Protect materials from dust and other pollutants
  • Protect materials from light
  • Protect from pests and mold

Select the Appropriate Storage Materials

  • Always use archival-quality storage materials (see list of suppliers in this leaflet) acid-free paper, folders, and boxes
  • Use Mylar, a stable polyester, or polypropylene or polyethylene
  • Always use reproductions for display.

Preparing Materials for Storage

  • Store documents upright (with support) in acid-free folders in acid-free boxes
  • Match document size with its container
  • Do not overstuff folders or boxes
  • Label folders and boxes as to contents and dates—this alleviates wear and tear when looking for an item
  • Utilize appropriate storage containers for oversized materials (oversized storage boxes) or ephemera such as postcards or magazines (individual polyester enclosures)

Do Not:

  • Do not laminate any item you wish to preserve for the long-term. Lamination can cause long-term damage
  • Do not use tape or glue on your materials
  • Do not display any document or photograph of value—sunlight and light will cause irreparable damage
  • Do not use magnetic "sticky" albums
  • Do not use any item made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • Do not consider digitizing your photographs as a long-term preservation option. It is unclear how long digital images will last, due to technological obsolescence and impermanence of storage formats (i.e. CD-Roms)



  • Remove all fasteners and extraneous materials—paper clips, rubber bands, staples
  • Do not remove fasteners if doing so will cause additional damage
  • Flatten documents (remove from envelopes if necessary)
  • Use stainless steel paperclips or Plastiklips to attach related documents, or an envelope to a letter
  • Using a soft brush, gently dust off dirt and dust
  • Separate newspaper clippings. Photocopy onto acid-free paper and file with documents. If keeping original clipping, store in separate folder away from other documents
  • Identify documents if necessary with a soft #2 pencil—on the back and along the margins. Note authors and date, if known.
  • Separate fragile or torn documents—sleeve in protective enclosures and store in folders



By Ivan Hanthorn, Head, Preservation Department


Scrapbooks and albums are a much beloved and often used means of saving photographs, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, documents, and the other assorted items which document the interests and activities of individuals, families, and organizations. Photograph albums have been in common use since the development of photography in the nineteenth century. Scrapbooks have an even longer history as a common means of preserving the assorted mementos of life. While each is a unique item, scrapbooks and albums share many common characteristics which cause problems.


Materials and techniques commonly used in scrapbooks present real preservation challenges. Album and scrapbook pages are almost always made of low quality paper that will embrittle over time and contribute to discoloration of the items placed in the scrapbook. The binding structure is often unable to adjust to the bulge caused by overloading the scrapbook, with detached covers a common result. Vinyl plastic commonly used in modern scrapbooks and albums is damaging over time to photographs. Items are often attached to scrapbook pages with harmful tapes and adhesives. Staples and pins, also used for attachment purposes, often rust over time and contribute to tears of poor quality scrapbook pages.


So, what should you do with scrapbooks that you treasure and want to maintain in good condition over time? Following are some basic handling and treatment procedures that will contribute to the item’s survival.

  • An archival quality storage box provides a high quality storage enclosure for scrapbooks. These can be obtained from archival supply sources. Scrapbooks should be stored spine down or flat in the box, depending on box design and scrapbook size.
  • Shelving small and medium-sized scrapbooks on open book shelves between books of similar size will help to prevent warp and distortion of the scrapbooks.
  • Scrapbooks with loose or detached covers can be tied up (package style), preferably with flat cotton tape, to reduce damage. Place the bow knot at the foredge of the scrapbook to prevent pressure indentations on the covers.
  • Wrapping loosely bound or damaged scrapbooks with acid-free paper provides better protection than tying up alone, and is helpful even if the item will be boxed.
  • Flat storage of scrapbooks is best if they contain pamphlets and similar multiple- page items attached to scrapbook pages or heavy artifacts (e.g., buttons, medals, etc.) loosely attached to the pages.
  • Handle scrapbooks carefully; they are complex physical structures. Bindings and brittle pages can break and scrapbook contents can easily become detached or torn. If making a photocopy, be very cautious about applying pressure that could break the binding of the scrapbook.
  • Detached items can be separately enclosed in archival quality folders or envelopes and stored with the scrapbook, preferably in an archival quality flat box.
  • Generally it is wiser to leave the scrapbook as you inherited it rather than to try to improve on its construction methods. Attend to storage and handling; contact a conservator if you want to address repair problems.
  • Making a facsimile of the scrapbook or album through photography, photocopy, or digital means can reduce handling and thus further damage, but the condition of the original must be adequate to undertake this.


Sources for Archival Supplies


Conservation Resources
8000-H Forbes Place
Springfield, VA 22151

Gaylord Brothers
Box 4901
Syracuse, NY 13221-4901

The Highsmith Company, Inc.
W5527 Highway 106
P.O. Box 800
Fort Atkinson, WI 53538-0800

Hollinger Corporation
3810 South Four Mile Run Drive
P.O. Box 6185
Arlington, VA 22206

Light Impressions
439 Monroe Avenue
P.O. Box 940
Rochester, NY 14603-0940

Nast Industries
P.O. Drawer 3776
Ocala, FL 32678

213 West 35th Street
New York, NY 10001-1996

University Products
P.O. Box 101
South Canal Street
Holyoke, MA 01041



Websites of Interest


American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works: Disaster Recovery


Conservation OnLine:


Consortium of Iowa Archivists:


Council on Library and Information Resources


The Genealogy Home Page


Iowa Conservation and Preservation Consortium


Iowa Genealogical Society


Iowa: Vital Records Information


Library of Congress:

Library of Congress: American Memory; Historical Collections for the National Digital Library: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/ammemhome.html

Library of Congress: Preservation:

A Primer on Disaster Preparedness, Management and Response: Paper-Based Materials


State Historical Society of Iowa



For additional information relating to the preservation of your papers, or locating a conservator:

Hilary Seo
Head, Preservation
441 Parks Library, ISU
Ames, IA 50011-2140
(515) 294-8858

Special Collections and University Archives
403 Parks Library
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011-2102
(515) 294-4216