Personal Archives Preservation Guide

This guide is intended to help you preserve your personal collections of historical and family artifacts for future generations. Outlined are some of the most common problems encountered when caring and storing aging records in your own home.

The Basics of Preservation

The Enemies of Preservation:

  • Ultraviolet light (from either sunlight or light bulbs)
  • Fluctuations of and/or extremes in temperature and humidity
  • Dirt and dust
  • Insects, rodents and other pests
  • Mould
  • Poor quality paper products
  • Adhesives
  • Contaminants (ink, rust, rubber bands, chemicals, plastics, paint fumes, dyes, etc.)

The Friends of Preservation:

  • Darkness
  • Moderate, consistent temperature and humidity: temperatures around 20°C and 45% relative humidity are good home archive storage conditions
  • Cleanliness
  • Acid-free folders, scrapbooking materials and non-adhesive photo albums

The most important thing: consistency

Almost all materials - paper, film negatives, audio tapes, etc. - respond to changes in temperature and humidity. Fluctuations in either of these causes severe damage over long periods of time in items composed of multiple materials like paper and inks. The layers of materials will expand and contract at different rates, causing them to separate, leaving valuable items extremely brittle, flaking and fragile.

In a home environment, storing materials in rooms with constant, moderate temperature and humidity can dramatically slow the aging process and reduce the likelihood of damage. A cooler room is preferable if available, but spaces prone to fluctuations in temperature and humidity like basements, bathrooms, kitchens, attics and garages should be avoided and are not good storage areas for personal archives.

Some archival supplies are available at the Archives Store. You can also find some materials for home preservation in art and drafting stores, which often carry acid-free paper, matt boards and photo corners.

More Tips on Preserving Personal Archives and Artifacts

Framing and Display:

  • Rather than hanging original photographs or documents, have high-quality copies made to display, and store the originals in dark storage to keep them protected from ultraviolet light deterioration.
  • If making copies is not an option (such as with large artworks), get the items framed by professional conservation or museum framers who will use acid-free materials and will not dry mount with heat and adhesives.
  • Ultraviolet-blocking glass may be available, but never use 'non-glare' glass because it is made up of tiny prisms that direct light into the piece, increasing the rate of deterioration.
  • Never attempt to clean documents or photographs yourself; even a soft eraser can damage a fragile original. Always consult a conservator. Check the Canadian Association for the Conservation of Cultural Property website or contact the Provincial Archives for assistance.

Storing:

  • Store papers and photos in acid-free folders or scrapbooks.
  • Paper deteriorates faster at fold lines. Store paper artifacts flat wherever possible, or use the minimum required number of folds. Extremely large items like maps can be rolled and stored in acid-free storage tubes if available.
  • Avoid any clear plastic sleeves made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) even if labelled 'archival' or 'archive-safe'. PVC is an unstable plastic that reacts in the presence of water to release hydrochloric acid, and can cause discolouration in photographs and paper, or cause the plastic to become stuck to the item. Use only chemically stable 'inert' plastics that are PVC-free, such as polyester, polypropylene and polyethylene.
  • Use plastic paper clips instead of metal ones. Metal clips can rust and cause discolouration or weaken the paper around the clip.
  • Do not use rubber bands, adhesive tapes or glues. In particular, avoid using 'magnetic' photo albums. These albums use thin lines of adhesive strips to hold photographs in place and, as the adhesive ages, it will either dry out, loosening the photograph, or become extremely tacky, making it impossible to remove the photographs later.
  • Do not use ink or felt pens on the backs of photos. Use soft lead pencils (6B pencils are available at the Archives Store and at any art or drafting store). Write on the edge of photo rather than the middle. If the photo is going to be mounted in an album or scrapbook, consider writing on the page next to the photograph.

Photographs, Film and Negatives:

  • Black and white photographs, negatives and black and white cinefilms have the longest storage life if processed correctly. Under ideal storage conditions, they can last in excess of 100 years.
  • If using black and white film, make sure it is actually true black and white film. So-called 'black and white' film processed in a C-41 process is actually colour film. Many labs produce black and white prints with a colour process. Stay away from 'one-hour' labs and seek out professional labs for archive-friendly processing.
  • Nitrate film is a fire hazard. Nitrate negatives were produced from about 1888 to around 1940 for roll and sheet film. 35mm is the only size of motion picture film that has ever been produced on nitrate, up until 1951.
  • Colour photographs, negatives and cinefilm will begin to fade within approximately 20 years because of the instability of the dyes.

Videos, CDs, DVDs and Disks:

  • Videos will only last approximately 20 years at best. For longest life, do not store videos near your television or any other device that produces an electrical field.
  • Store vertically, wound all the way to the beginning or the end.
  • Remove record tabs to ensure video archives are not accidentally recorded over.
  • Rewind your tapes every five years.
  • When purchasing video or audio cassette tapes, purchase a name brand at the shortest time possible. A 60 minute cassette will last longer than a 120 minute cassette.
  • CDs, DVDs, floppy disks and other electronic formats have the shortest life spans at about five years. Consider printing valuable images, as conversion will eventually be necessary due to obsolete equipment and software.

Preservation Links

Canadian Association for the Conservation of Cultural Property - An organization of professionals involved in the conservation of Canada's cultural heritage, the CAC is dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge of preservation issues to the conservation community and the general public.

Canadian Association of Professional Conservators - The Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC) is a non-profit association dedicated to the accreditation of professional conservators and the maintenance of high standards in conservation of cultural property in Canada.

Canadian Conservation Institute - CCI is an agency of Canadian Heritage dedicated to promoting the proper care and preservation of Canada's cultural heritage and to advance the practice, science and technology of conservation.

Conservation OnLine (CoOL): Conservation/Preservation Information for the General Public - A site aimed at conservation professionals, CoOL also includes information for the general public on a variety of topics.