Best Practices for Preserving Your Family Archives

Shown: Henry Gerards records, from POW camp. These documents, like many family records, were stored for years in a closet. Courtesy of the Joseph A. Moller Library.

Many of us have a shoebox or suitcase filled with old family records. Have you ever wondered how to preserve these generations-old papers, or a cherished photo album? Should you tape ripped pages, or glue loose photos? Is it true that you should always wear gloves when handling your records? Is it OK that items are just stacked in a box?

Although most of us don’t think of these materials as a family archive, indeed, that is exactly what they are. In this article, Mariel Watt, the museum’s archivist, shares tips on how to handle, store, repair, and digitize your records.  This article is by no means exhaustive; please do not hesitate to look at the online resources listed in the References section below.

Tips for Handling Your Family Archival Collections

  • Use a clean workspace free from dust and debris.
  • Wash and dry your hands and do not apply lotion.
  • For handling photographs use medical gloves. Cotton gloves are not recommended because it detracts from fingertip sensation, leading to tears.

Storage for family archives

  • Use a pencil, not pen to label photographs, folders, and other items.
  • Store papers in acid free folders and boxes.
  • Store items in areas free of damp, sunlight, sources of leaks, floods, insects, rodents and extreme temperature fluctuations. Humidity above 65% will damage items, but humidity below 15% will cause brittleness.
  • Purchase acid free archival grade materials.
  • For loose photographs, consider purchasing and placing them in clear archival photo sleeves.
  • If photographs have been placed in an album or scrapbook DO NOT take them apart. You can use acid free archival tissue paper between page leaves to prevent scrapbook items on pages from rubbing against one another. Loose photos and items can be placed in archival sleeves and boxes with a note detailing which page they came from and any identifying information.

Repairing Family Archives

  • Please consult a professional archivist or paper conservator before applying ANY treatment.
  • Never use pressure sensitive tape (like scotch tape.) Better to store the item in an acid free folder with tears.
  • Never use glue.
  • Do gently remove metal staples and paperclips or other materials that rust; use archival paper clips and folders to maintain original order instead.
  • Do gently remove rubber bands, if you must tie secure an item with a rubber band elect to use archival muslin instead.
  • Mold can be a hazard health to people—please limit handling of moldy items—remove the source of humidity or water that makes mold grow—seek the advice of a professional paper conservator if item is irreplaceable.

Digitizing Family Archives

  • Only use a flatbed scanner if original fits completely on the surface—do not allow the scan lid to crush or crease paper that does not fit.
  • For albums or scrapbooks seek a professional archivist for advice. These items need to be digitized using an overhead scanner and book cradles to safely digitize.
  • Add basic metadata to your electronic files—date of the photograph or paper, names of persons identifiable, their birth and death dates if known, and any other context to the photo (i.e., this is a photo of Ned [birthdate 1921-2000 death] and Nancy Drew [1923-1997] courting during WWII, photograph taken November 16, 1943.)
  • Scan archival materials at the highest resolution possible.
  • Back up electronic archival materials regularly—maintain three copies. Store on two different media and keep one copy off site or in cloud storage.

Do you have specific questions about caring for your family archives? The 390th Museum is also pleased to offer archival advice as a service to our veterans and their families. Please contact the Museum Archivist for more information.


Tips for Handling Family Papers and Photographs. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2017, from

“Preserving Old Letters in the Digital Age.” Archival Methods Blog, 27 July 2017,

Preserving Old Letters. (2016, February 08). Retrieved September 22, 2017, from

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