How to preserve old documents.
November 26, 2007 7:35 PM   Subscribe

What should I do with old family documents?

I recently came into a significant amount of old family papers--letters, titles, indentures, poems, essays, journals, assorted detritus, newspapers, broadsheets, magazines and military commissions--dating from just before the Revolutionary War to just after WWI. The family resided for the better part of three centuries in Virginia and Tennessee--but the a lot of the letters are from elsewhere. No one else in the family seems to want them, but I'm inclined to hold on to them--at least as long as it takes to transcribe some of them. At the same time, I'm a little scared of damaging some of the papers. I don't have a sophisticated file system and a lot of letters are already worse for wear.

So, my question is two fold:

(1) What's the best way for me to take care of these papers while they are in my possession?


(2) If I choose to pass them on, where should I send them?
I have no celebrities in my family tree, but there were a few governors and legislators back in the day.
posted by thivaia to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can donate them to a university archive, or perhaps negotiate some sort of long-term loan. In my opinion, this would be preferable to you hanging onto them, since the university would have access to advanced document preservation techniques, would ideally be secure against fires or other disasters, would be catalogued, and the papers would be available to researchers. The age of the papers alone would likely make them of great academic/archival interest.
posted by jayder at 7:45 PM on November 26, 2007

Before passing them along, consider spending a weekend with the documents and a scanner and/or high-resolution digital camera. Even if you don't catalogue them now, toss the image files in a folder, and you can sort through them on a rainy day down the road. Or future generations may be glad you did.
posted by rdn at 8:23 PM on November 26, 2007

Best answer: Good for you that you are trying to preserve these precious pieces of history. Even if they don't seem all that valuable to you, future researchers might find them very useful.

I would recommend that you handle the items as little as possible. The oils from your hands get transfered to the pages, so if you want to be extra careful you can wear the light cotton gloves you can buy at the pharmacy while handling them. If you have access to a good flatbed scanner, see if you can take them out once and scan them carefully, then transcribe them from the scan rather than from the original. That's also a way to keep all the documents with you even if you decide to donate them later. When scanning, you don't have to put the heavy lid on the scanner, just put a dark piece of paper on top - that way you don't crush the pages. If the items are folded, try to unfold them as few times as possible. With creased letters, it's especially important not to crush the document with the heavy scanner lid.

To store them temporarily, get some acid-free paper and place them between each sheet if you can. Acid-free tissue paper will work very well, and is not particularly expensive. The acid leaching from the old paper itself (as well as from surrounding non-acid free papers if that's how you have stored it) is generally the worst culprit in ruining old documents. You can store them in acid-free manila folders with tissue paper between each item. If you anticipate holding on to them for a while, you might consider some archival boxes. Try not to store them flat if there is a lot of them, as the weight of the items on top might damage the ones on the bottom.

As for what to do with them, there are probably universities, local museums, or local historical societies from the areas involved that would be interested in the collection. I would recommend that you go straight to the State Historic Preservation Office in both Virginia and Tennessee and ask their advice on which archives might be interested in receiving your collection. The SHPO is the government entity in charge of safekeeping historic buildings, archives, archaeological sites, etc. for each state. The Tennessee SHPO is the Tennessee Historical Commission, and they have both a Public Historian and several Historic Preservation Specialists on staff that might be willing to help you. In Virginia, the SHPO is the Department of Historic Resources. I know from personal experience that they focus mostly on specific properties and on historical markers, but they might have some idea of where to turn for you. The Virginia Historical Society also accepts donations of collections. Even if they can't accept it, they might be able to tell you which local museums might want to.

Hope that helps. Good luck!
posted by gemmy at 8:43 PM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

The North Carolina State Historical Records Advisory Board has some resources for preserving old documents. It might be fun to create your own family museum. If there are kids around they could get involved, too. It sounds cheesy, I know, but this sort of thing can be a fun group project. For that matter, if there's any older folk around, they might have some stories. Just because they don't want to be responsible for the letters themselves doesn't mean they might not like the opportunity for some storytelling. Good luck!
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 8:49 PM on November 26, 2007

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