November 3, 2011

Document Preservation

It's been raining all day, so my living room smells like wet dog.

My kitchen smells like the damp newspapers, photographs, baby books, albums, genealogies, diplomas, wedding announcements, thank you cards, etc. that I've brought from my mother's house to begin putting in order.

I began researching document preservation six weeks ago and was immediately overwhelmed by the size of the task. The one thing of which I'm certain is that it's going to be a long haul.

The immediate task? Stop the deterioration.

How do you do that?

First step is to segregate the newspapers from every other item. Newspapers have a higher acid content than other paper grades and will not only self-destruct rapidly but will share their high acid content with everything they touch.

Second step is to kill the crawly things. I haven't seen any silverfish, but there was one slimy little critter with an angular back I noticed darting between two photographs yesterday.

Ick. Double ick, because if I'm serious about preservation, I really can't simply toss the piles of stuff into a room, set off a bug bomb, and head out the door with the dogs. You just know that anything toxic enough to kill bugs is going to damage paper.

So there's that. And then comes the third step, which is to thoroughly dry out each and every piece. Not so dry that they crumble, you understand, but dry enough that the growth of mold is halted.

The other third step is to remove any framed photographs from their frames.

Of course, these aren't truly consecutive steps. In a perfect world, they would all be completed simultaneously.

Generally speaking, I'm to handle each piece of paper separately, because friction causes further deterioration. (No clutching a bunch of photos in one hand and hauling them to a table with more light to study them.) I'm to use both hands, on the outside edges, unless the piece is 8 x 10 or larger, in which case I'm to use my third hand to support the back side. The use of cotton gloves is strongly encouraged but not going to happen. Acid-free storage products are essential for storage once everything is clean and dry and not twitching.

Years ago I heard that Bounty paper towels are acid-free. I contacted the company to confirm the rumor, and they said it's true, so I'm using Bounty sheets between each item as I go, both for protection and to absorb the damp.

I've heard there are several local companies good at stabilizing ephemera. (Louisville is a river city with periodic heavy rains, tornadoes, floods, etc.; so it's not surprising.) I'm waiting for recommendations. I'm also going to call Cousin Carolyn (my mother's cousin, who is about my age) for advice. Carolyn and my mother worked together on family genealogy for decades, and I suspect she knows quite a bit about preservation. I'm also posting about the art and life of Middle Bass Island; pop on over to the other blog for a look if you're curious.

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