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Our mission is simple — to help you capture, preserve, organize and enjoy your family's most valuable memories using archival best practices, methodologies equipment and supplies, employed by FA Logo professional archivists and museum experts from around the world.

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Archival Tools & Techniques


Archival document boxes organize
and protect your special memories

To protect your family archive, you'll need to purchase boxes, folders, paper and other items, such as tissue paper, that are acid-free and lignin-free. Most archival materials will also have a neutral pH; meaning they don't contain acid or other chemicals that will cause harm or deterioration of your materials. You'll also need to know a few basic techniques for handling delicate archival materials.

Archival Best Practices:

  1. Archival Tools & Supplies

  2. Archival Techniques

1 Archival Tools & Supplies

Professional archivists constantly balance competing priorities — such as the importance of preserving precious artifacts vs. the need to stick to a tight budget. You'll have to balance those priorities too, just like the professionals do. Keep in mind that the most important archival materials are those that touch the photos and documents in your archive every day and those that protect your archive from dust and moisture from the outside.

Be careful! There are many items on the market that claim that they are "archival quality" or "acid-free". Many of these are not preservation quality and WILL NOT hold up over the years, let alone for generations. For example, regular cardboard boxes and paper contain acid, which can lead to further deterioration and cause irreparable damage to your precious memories. Even many home organization and scrapbooking materials are not professional archival quality.


Archival Boxes
Archival boxes are the first line of defense against dust, dirt, mold and moisture and provide a long-term system for storing your materials. They are the "keepers" of your valuable memories, protecting them from the elements as well as other contaminants.

NOTE: Standard cardboard boxes have a high acidic content and should be avoided or replaced. Do not store materials in plastic tubs. Plastic tubs can seal in existing moisture.

Archival boxes come in many types and sizes. The two most commonly used are "flip-top" style boxes with an attached lid and rectangular flat boxes with a detachable lid. Both have metal edges for reinforcement. The "flip-top" boxes are most commonly used to store files vertically, but can also be placed on their sides so that materials inside will lay flat. The most common sizes for folders that house materials inside the boxes are "letter" and "legal".

You may also want to consider using "spacer boards". These are used to fill the empty space in boxes to keep materials stable and straight. If you're storing materials vertically, and there's a lot of empty space in the box, materials can bow and bend, causing permanent damage. Spacer boards usually come in one size and can be adjusted for each use.

It can make your archive easier to manage if you choose a uniform size for your boxes when you get started. This will help keep storage within the boxes and on shelves uniform as well. We recommend selecting either "letter" or "legal", and building from there. "Legal" is usually the way to go because it fits easily on a shelf and can accommodate an array of things typically found in a family archive. Its size is almost identical to that of the smaller letterbox and the cost differential is, in most cases, nominal.

To mark the outside of your boxes, use archival box labels and mark the labels in pencil.

Protective Sleeves
It's critical that you store documents, photographs and other types of paper-based materials in Mylar® (polyester) or polypropylene sleeves. These are specifically designed to protect their contents from dust, dirt, oils and light and, most importantly, do not contain harmful chemicals.

NOTE: Regular plastic sleeves are not recommended for use in a family archive.

Storing materials in sleeves can also be an economical first step in the preservation process. Your materials will be protected from dirt, damage from handling, as well as other contaminants, and you will be able to view both sides of the object. If you can't afford or don't want to obtain all your archival materials at once, these sleeves can shield your items from harm until you're able to upgrade to archival quality folders and boxes.

File Folders
Archival folders come in many types and sizes including standard, legal size and large-format to house items such as posters and maps. Utilize folders especially if you choose not to place items in protective sleeves. They add not only another level of organization to the boxes of materials, but also much needed protection and stability.

Archival Paper
Use only paper that has low or no lignin, typically labeled "acid-free" and "buffered." Acid and other chemicals in paper, and other types of storage sleeves, folders and containers, can speed up the deterioration process. Acid-free paper can be used for photocopying, and as a protective layer to separate items such as photographs and documents. It can also be used, in strips, to help group documents.

Your archival budget can affect the type of archival-quality materials you purchase. Often, lignin-free materials can be more costly. If you don't purchase lignin-free materials right away, you can offset possible damage by keeping your materials away from outside influences, such as heat and humidity, which can cause changes and damage.

Archival paper is an especially permanent, durable acid-free paper. It is used for publications of high legal, historical, or significant value. In the U.S., such paper must also be approved in accordance with the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards. The international standard for "permanent" paper is ISO 9706 and for "archival" paper, the standard is ISO 11108. The sign of ANSI approved alkaline paper is the circled infinity symbol: ∞.

Standard paper is made from wood-based pulp that has not had its lignin removed. Standard paper turns yellow and deteriorates over time, and can break down even faster if exposed to light and/or heat. Acid- and lignin-free paper, on the other hand, is usually treated with a mild base (usually calcium or magnesium bicarbonate) to neutralize the natural acids. It may also be buffered to prevent the formation of additional acids. The best archival paper has a life expectancy of over 1,000 years, but you can also get paper rated for 500 years or other time periods.

Brushes
Use only dry, clean brushes for archival projects. When cleaning documents and photographs, soft-bristled brushes can be used to gently clear away dust, dirt, debris or particles. Keep these brushes separated from other brushes, which are used for a heavier duty, such as dusting or cleaning the exteriors of materials like bound volumes.

You may want to invest in a small collection of brushes to use during your project. It's important to monitor the dirt level on your brushes. Do not use a dirty brush over again because you're just shifting dirt from one memento to another. Keep brushes clean by washing them with water, or soap and water. When using soap to wash your brushes, make sure they are thoroughly rinsed and dried before using them again.

Cotton Gloves
Cotton archival gloves should be worn when working with photographic materials, including prints, negatives or slides, as well as dirty or dusty documents and other materials. And just like the brushes, they should be regularly washed when dirty.

Archival Spatulas
A stainless steel archival spatula can be used to remove staples or other types of fasteners. Because of the thinness of an archival spatula, it can also be used to delicately pry away tape or materials that are lightly stuck together.

Archival Pencils / Pens
When working with your precious materials, it is preferable to use only pencils. Markers and pens can easily transfer ink onto your materials — whether cloth or paper — and cause irreparable damage.

Archival pencils called "All-Stabilo" pencils are available in black or white water-soluble lead which can be wiped or erased from surfaces easily. If you are seeking to permanently label folders, boxes, CDs, DVDs or other items, use only pens or markers that are non-toxic, chemically-stable and waterproof. Use only writing utensils that are identified for archival use.

2 Archival Techniques

Aside from having archival-quality materials for your family archive, you'll also need some basic instructions for handling archival materials.

Your hands should be free of dirt, oil or lotion. Thoroughly wash and dry your hands prior to handling or working with any family mementos.

Handling tips:

  • Use cotton gloves to handle documents and photographs, especially those that are particularly old or fragile. DO NOT use cotton gloves when handling glass or ceramic materials with slick surfaces. You might lose your grip on the item and drop it.

  • If you don't have cotton gloves, handle materials by their edges.

  • Handle items carefully, with both hands if necessary, providing stability for the entire item.

  • Do not bend or fold materials.

  • When examining an item, leave it flat on the table.

  • Work on a clean surface.

  • Avoid working in or leaving items in direct sunlight.

  • Avoid leaving items directly in artificial light for extended periods.

For more information about handling the materials in your family archive, check out the "How to Preserve" sections under Documents, Mementos, Photos, Film & Video, and Digital Files.

Helpful Hint: If there are some items in your family archive that you like to look at regularly; show family members; or use for reference while doing research, make color photocopies or high quality scans that you can use every day. Keep the originals protected from heavy use in your archive.


Organizing & Maintaining