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How to Preserve Your Documents

Copy important documents onto
archival paper to prevent
yellowing for more than 500 years

Common items – like correspondence, certificates and news clippings – are usually the most fragile items in an archive because of the material they're printed on. Newspaper is an especially delicate medium because of its varying levels of acidity and chemicals.

Documents and paper archives are also extremely susceptible to moisture and temperature fluctuations, which can cause materials to expand and contract, contributing to their continuing deterioration. So it's especially important that you follow the archival guidelines in this section to properly preserve and protect your paper items. Also be sure to store your documents in professional archival boxes, specially designed to stabilize and protect documents over a long period of time.

How to Preserve Documents

  1. Most paper files

  2. Books and bound paper

1 How to Preserve Most Paper Files

Handle With Care
Always handle older documents with cotton gloves, or if you don't have cotton gloves make sure your hands are clean. Oil, dirt and other debris on your hands can easily transfer to the document's surface and cause damage.

Also, when holding items that are particularly thin, delicate or larger than 5"x7", support them from underneath. Delicate paperwork can easily bend or break if not properly supported.

Fragile paper items, especially those that have a high acidic content (newspaper clippings) should be placed in Mylar sleeves or covered (both top and bottom) with acid-free paper before storing.

Making Photocopies and Digital Copies
Documents can also be photocopied onto archival-quality, buffered (acid-free) paper that will preserve them for 500 years without yellowing. The originals can be kept, if archived properly or you can dispose of originals that have deteriorated too much. However, there are some originals you may want to keep, regardless of condition, such as correspondence from a relative.

Photocopying also allows you to handle or work with the materials on a regular basis. You can make a "preservation" copy to keep in your archive, and/or a "working" copy if you need to reference it frequently.

Digitizing materials can also prevent further need to access or handle the originals. Documents and other paper materials can be digitized by using a scanner or a digital camera. However, if you choose to digitize materials see the Digital Files section of this site for information on the proper file formats to use when scanning paper materials.

Protecting Your Documents
The final step in organizing and preserving your documents is fairly simple. Once you have evaluated and prepared your materials, you can begin placing them into archival folders and boxes.

Correct storage of materials in archival folders will stabilize these materials for generations to come. Remember not to overstuff folders. Distribute your documents evenly within each folder and store in standard size archival folders (letter or legal size).

Once you have compiled a set of folders, relocate them to archival boxes. Again, even distribution is critical, so, do not overstuff. Compression can cause unnecessary damage.

If a box is not completely filled, bend a spacer board – a piece of archival board – to size to fit in the box and fill the empty space. Spacer boards can be used when storing items flat or vertically in a box.

Tips for Storing Your Documents And Paper Items

download tips

  • Place acid-free paper in between each item, and then place in an acid free archival folder. Take care not to overstuff the folder with more than 5 to 10 items per folder.

  • Documents should be unfolded before storing. However, if a document has been folded for a long time, before you unfold it carefully evaluate the possible damage that can result from unfolding it. If the damage would be too great, either store the item folded or unfold the item and either copy it onto acid free archival paper, or scan it to preserve a complete copy.

  • Gently remove any paperclips, fasteners and/or staples from items. Do not use staple removers, which can tear the items. Use an archival spatula or other flat, stiff, thin tool to carefully loosen the fastener. Your fingers or a pair of tweezers can also be used to complete the removal.

  • To file items together, stack the documents, with acid-free paper layered in between, and attach them together by using a small (maybe 2 in. x 1 in.) piece of archival paper under a stainless steel paperclip. The archival paper will shield your document from damage by the paperclip.

  • Discard any cardboard, folders, envelopes or other types of paper that were touching your original documents. If there is information on these storage materials that is related to the documents you’re saving, photocopy the information onto acid-free paper or take notes, and include this with the original documents.

  • Store documents and paper items flat. If stored vertically, make sure there's support inside the box the item is stored in to keep items vertical so they don’t bend or bow.

2 Books and Bound Paper

Handle With Care
Preserving books presents a very different challenge from loose papers. Remember to handle books with cotton gloves, but be sure not to touch the inside areas and pages with the same gloves you used to handle the outside of the book, so you won't transfer potentially damaging debris onto the pages.

Loose or Damaged Book Covers
If the cover or spine of a book is loose or damaged, use cotton twill tape to bind the book together, but don't tighten the tape too much. Just secure it enough to keep the pieces together without pinching them.

Also, older, leather-bound books can give off a red dust called "red rot." This occurs because chemicals used to treat or tan certain leathers can make the leather slowly disintegrate. If red rot becomes a problem, you can send your books out to be re-bound. This process can be relatively inexpensive. Another solution is to wrap your older books in archival paper or archival board enclosures. Archival board enclosures are special, acid-free materials that look like regular cardboard, but they're specially designed to preserve and protect materials.

Musty or Moldy Smells
Some books or volumes may give off a musty or moldy smell. This means that mold and mildew probably settled into the item(s). Allow damp or wet books to dry in a cool, less humid location. Stand the book up, and turn or fan the pages to allow for even drying. If the book is too fragile to stand up, lay it cover down and turn the pages as they dry. This process could take several days.

To minimize the moldy smell in books, place the dry book inside a small container and then place the smaller container in a larger container, like a tub or garbage can. At the bottom of the large container place baking soda or clay cat litter. Place the lid on the large container and store in a cool, dark and dry location. This process may take several days and you may need to change the baking soda or cat litter periodically.

Protecting Your Books
The final step in organizing and preserving your documents is fairly simple. Once you have evaluated and prepared your materials, you can begin placing them into archival folders and boxes.

Books or other bound documents can be stored upright on a shelf and supported by bookends. Or you can store books in archival boxes. If a book is older or needs particular protection, place it in a folder and store it spine-down inside an archival box with other books. Large volumes should also be stored flat on a shelf. Do not stack volumes unless absolutely necessary.

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