I'm pleased to have a guest blogger today. Gabriela Burgman, a trained archivist and professional organizer, shares her secrets for preserving special papers. In future poststo our blog Gabriela will also share tips for preserving fabrics and photographs. Enjoy! – Elizabeth
Often the paper in our lives is transitory. It comes into our homes bearing information we might need from never (junk mail) to forever (birth certificates). A majority of it will end up in the recycle bin. Some of it will end up in storage for awhile until someone else wants it or it loses value.
Today I want to share tips for storing paper that you want to preserve, from a few years to forever. When you begin thinking about storing paper ask yourself these questions:
- How long do I want to keep it?
- How valuable is this paper to me?
- How many other people are going to handle it besides me?
How Long? Time is the enemy of paper (besides heat, humidity, and the environment). Some papers are made to last longer than others. For example, newspapers are created with the intention that you are going to throw them out in a week. This is why they tend to yellow and become brittle in a short period of time.
Paper will last the longest when it is stored in dry environments (so it doesn’t mold or stick together). Paper likes cool environments. When it is too hot, the fibers become brittle. Paper also likes non acidic environments. Acid is already present in its make-up as well as the pollutants in the air. It will slowly break down the fibers in the paper. If the papers are surrounded by folders and boxes that also contain acid, then the deterioration just accelerates.
How valuable is this paper to me? After reading about all the coddling paper needs to remain around for a long period of time, you need to ask yourself is it worth it? For example, you only need to keep tax papers for seven years just in case you get audited. Since these papers have a short term value, just invest in plastic boxes to protect them from water and critters. Don’t worry about storing those boxes in a garage or basement, where the temperature will likely fluctuate, speeding up the deterioration of the paper: the environment you keep your taxes in only needs to be good enough to protect them for seven years.
Documents you consider priceless, on the other hand, such as birth/wedding/death certificates, special news clippings, baseball cards, and children's artwork, need a bigger investment in their care if you wish to preserve them.
To preserve these kinds of papers, make sure your container and folders have been "buffered" (aka "Acid Free"). Buffered is when "the addition of alkaline agents such as calcium or magnesium carbonate during the papermaking process [is added] in order to counteract the effect of acidic contamination."* You can purchased buffered boxes and folders. In fact, some archives even put blank sheets of buffered paper between each document in a folder to halt the spread of acid contamination. Another good practice is taking newspaper clippings and photocopying them onto buffered paper which will last far longer than newsprint.
How many other people are going to handle the paper? If you know certain items are going to be handled repeatedly, you may want to go so far as to put each document in polypropylene (chemically stable plastic) sleeves. If not, then storing them in buffered containers is good enough.
Storing papers. After you have all your documents properly stored in their containers, you need to place them in a safe place free from humidity and temperature fluctuations. Often, the best place for your containers is on a closet shelf. By having the containers off the ground, you avoid the possibility of damage by flood water. The rooms in your home tend to maintain a consistent temperature when compared to your attic, garage, or basement. A closet is usually closed off to direct sunlight and if you are storing clothing in these closets, you are already making sure that insects and humidity are not affecting the items being stored.
Resources. Here are my favorite resources for products mentioned to help preserve your special papers:
If you would like to learn more, I highly suggest visiting the website for the Northeast Document Conservation Center.
Gabriela Burgman, owner of Claiming Space professional organizing, holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College and a Masters Degree in Information Science from the University of Michigan. She has worked in colleges and universities for six years as an archivist and a records manager, assisting academic offices, administrators, and retiring academics sort through their files for preservation or disposal.