The first port of call for most people beginning their family history research is to look out the documents and photographs they already have, as these usually provide vital information to enable you to get started. As a professional genealogist I always ask clients to check what they hold at the outset; in some cases this might be a single birth or marriage certificate, while in others it could be a trunk full of documents dating back to the seventeenth century, with which one client surprised me fairly recently!
In many cases I am asked to provide basic advice about how best to store and conserve these precious items. Here are five top tips I would usually give to those needing guidance:
1. Metal fixings and rubber bands:
Carefully remove metal paper clips, staples and pins where possible without damage, as these tend to rust and cause discolouration and weakening of the paper. Solid brass clips can instead be used to hold small collections of papers together but only where necessary; these are inert and will not rust, break or become brittle over time. Rubber bands should also be removed as deterioration causes them to break down and adhere to the surface of documents. They can be replaced with unbleached archival tape, made from either cotton or linen.
2. Plastic enclosures:
Plastic wallets and enclosures can emit acids harmful to paper and cause gradual degradation, so it is important to remove documents and photographs from these. Archival polyester sleeves can instead be used for single sheet items, meaning that each side of a document is still visible, weak and damaged paper is supported and you can copy or scan through the sleeve. These can be purchased in various sizes and formats from most conservation product suppliers.
3. Dust and dirt:
Dust might not sound too threatening but it can speed up the chemical processes that lead to deterioration and may encourage pests in worst case scenarios. So, be sure to check documents regularly and take the time to clean them as best you can, paying particular attention to the creases in folded documents (i.e. wills, deeds and indentures) and the gutters of books.
Dirt and dust can cause archive material to deteriorate over time
4. Marking and labelling documents:
Never write on documents or photographs in pen! This might sound obvious to some but sadly it's an all too common mistake, as it not only causes permanent damage but also compromises the integrity of the item, especially in cases where the ink bleeds through the paper or a harsh indentation is made. Where necessary to mark your items, use a 2B pencil to write faintly on the reverse. If the pencil is newly sharpened, scribble on a scrap piece of paper to wear it down and slightly round off the tip before you begin.
5: Store your documents well:
You should always keep documents flat to prevent them from bending or curling, which causes them to weaken and deteriorate. They are best stored in an acid-free archival box (these can be purchased from most conservation product suppliers), preferably in a dry room that doesn't suffer from frequent fluctuations in temperature. All documents will take on moisture from the atmosphere if left in damp conditions and this will encourage mould growth, so it is always best to avoid storing them in garages, basements and attic spaces.
In addition to this basic overview, there are a number of in-depth guides available and further advice can be sought from specialist paper or book conservators. In reality, archive material will always be best stored in purpose built facilities and in cases where you have a large quantity, it might be that you wish to consider contacting your local record office to deposit it with them.