Many families will have a collection of old documents, books, photographs, albums and other ephemera, which while they be not be intrinsically valuable, will have great sentimental value, and will need to be looked after for descendants to appreciate in years to come. Paper documents, books and photographs deteriorate quickly if not kept in ideal conditions, and there are many simple steps that you can take to keep your family ephemera in good order and avoid deterioration. Always handle your documents, books and other ephemera very carefully. Wash and dry your hands before handling to avoid any transfer of grease or dirt which may cause marks that cannot be removed, and take care that long nails and rings do not damage paper or photographs. Support objects from underneath and never hold the corners of documents or the spine or single cover of a book as this may damage them. It is a good idea to make a copy of each document, so that you can keep the original stored safely if you want to look at the details.

Paper

This includes items such as original birth, marriage and death certificates, wills and house deeds for example. You may find that many original documents have become brittle with age and have faded so that they are difficult to read. Old newspapers age very quickly with the paper becoming brittle, discolouring or fading. This applies as much to modern newsprint as it does to older examples because newsprint paper is generally of a lower quality. Legal documents such as birth and death certificates are generally prepared on better quality paper so tend to deteriorate more slowly.

Storing paper documentation

All documents need to be stored in such a way as to prevent further damage and deterioration. It is a good idea to purchase acid free transparent folders, such as those made from transparent polyester (MylarD or Melinex156) to put them in and these can then be kept in an acid free storage box laid flat. Avoid putting your paper documents in polyvinyl chlorate (PVC) folders as these can react to damp and heat and print or ink can be transferred from the document, and you may find that the folder and paper stick together. Older birth, marriage and death certificates are not in the modern A4 format, so always make sure you purchase enclosures big enough to contain then without folding. Folding a document may cause the paper to weaken and then tear along the fold.

It is best to avoid extremes of temperature and damp conditions as this may cause further deterioration, so keep your storage box or folder in the centre of your house rather than in an attic, cellar, garage or garden shed where the temperature and humidity may vary from season to season. It is not really a good idea to frame such items; if they are ‘on show’ they will be exposed to UV light and the inks may fade. It is a good idea to make a copy by scanning, making a colour photocopy or taking a digital photograph. If necessary you can frame these if you want them on show. However, you should check the originals periodically for any sign of deterioration.

Caring for paper

If your paper items are damaged or in poor condition you may want them conserved or restored. It is best not to attempt this yourself as you may cause more damage, and it is always best to contact an experienced conservator or restorer if you want items repaired or conserved. If an item is torn I would caution against any home repair using sellotape or other ‘sticky’ (pressure sensitive) tape and this may cause long term damage, discolours and leaves a residue that can be very difficult to remove. Many old items are stapled or pinned together, or held together with metal paper clips. Paper clips, pins and staples are very prone to rust, and this is damaging to paper. Removal of staples and pins is best left to an expert. To attempt removal yourself may cause more damage to the paper, and once removed, pages can become detached and lost.

Books

Old books such as family bibles may have come in for a lot of handling over the generations. Many families used bibles (or other religious texts) to record birth, marriage and death dates of family members and with handling over many years the book spine may have weakened and pages may have become torn, loose and detached from the book.

Storing books

If you have a valued old text, it is best to store it in an acid free box matched to the size of the book. Storing it in a box will protect it from dust and UV light. You will need to check its condition periodically. If the book’s text block has fallen, this will put strain on the book spine, so you can tie up a book to maintain its integrity, and using acid free cotton tape will accomplish this quite well. Avoid ‘protecting’ the cover of the book with ‘sticky back plastic’. This can be difficult to remove and leaves a sticky residue. Very large or heavy books should be stored flat to avoid the text block falling. Other books can be shelved upright. Do not pack your books too tightly on the shelf, as this can damage the spines, and the cover and spine can be damaged when a book is removed.

Caring for books

Old books can be rebound if the covers are damaged beyond repair, although you need to ask yourself if the integrity of the book will be compromised by such an action. This is a task for an expert bookbinder. Open shelved books collect a lot of dust, and this may cause the paper to discolour and deteriorate. Tiny insects may appear, so open each book and check between the pages. You can use a soft brush to remove dust and insects. If your books are stored in boxes, you still need to check the condition of the books periodically, and brush away any dust or insects.

Most modern hardback books have dust jackets, but these often become lost, or are thrown away when they start to deteriorate. Transparent polyester non-stick or acid free paper covers will help to preserve the dust jacket, the cover and the text block.

When looking at your books, treat them gently. Turn the pages carefully and avoid licking your fingers to accomplish this. Don’t be tempted to turn the corners down on the pages to mark your place, but use a piece of paper instead, and always remember to remove any bookmark when you have finished. If you find a bookmark in a old book, remove it and store it separately if you want to keep it. Don’t bend, or ‘crack’ the spine of the book; if you have trouble holding the book open, you can lay it down and use a weighted tape to keep it open. I have found that curtain weighting is very good for this purpose. You can buy commercially produced angled book rests that provide a good surface for books to lie on. Lastly, please don’t read your valued books anywhere near water or other liquids. A book will dry out if it gets wet, but it will never be the same.

Photographs

The first photographs originated in the mid-nineteenth century and presented a more or less permanent method of visually recording a specific event. If you have early photographs or negatives, look after these very carefully. Keeping them loose in an old chocolate box is not a good idea! Conserving and restoring old photographs needs to be done by an expert, but you can store your precious family photos in such a way that they do not deteriorate in the same way that they might do in the old chocolate box.

Sorting photographs

If you have a large collection of photographs, it might be best to sort them out and discard any that are out of focus or poorly composed, and ones where you do not know who or what they represent. However, discuss this with other family members who might be able to throw some light on who and where. One you have decided what to keep, sort them into some kind of order that makes sense to you, and think about how you might store them. As with paper, store photographs in an area of your home that has constant humidity and temperature, so not in the loft, basement, garden shed or garage.

Storing photographs

Photographs tend to stick to each other, especially in warm conditions, so store each one individually if you can. You can buy paper or polyester (MylarD, Melinex156) enclosures, or you can put photos in to an album. Avoid storing in PVC folders or albums with stick-down pages; these so called ‘magnetic’ albums may damage the photographs if you try to remove them, and may leave a sticky residue which is difficult to remove from the surface of the photo. The best albums are plain pH neutral paper or ones with polyester pockets. The pages can be interleaved with Glassine paper to protect the surface of the photos. The photographs are then safely stored and organised, and can be viewed without causing damage from too frequent handling.

If you have a photograph that is handled frequently or is very fragile, you should store it in its own enclosure such as a paper folder, envelope or polyester sleeve, and then put it in a box together with other photos. You do not then need to view the photo without removing it from its protective enclosure. These methods of storage also protect the photo surface from fingerprints while you are looking at it. Always hold a photo by the edges, supporting it from underneath. You can support old, fragile or torn photographs with neutral pH card inserted into the enclosure.

Digital storage

Many people now rely on digital photography, looking at their photos on a computer or tablet, and rarely printing them out. This is fine, but make sure that you back up your photos, so that if you have a computer melt-down, you do not loose precious family memories. It is also worthwhile scanning, photocopying or photographing your old photographs and storing the images on computer.

Medals

You may be lucky and own medals awarded to your ancestors or even to yourself. As medals are made of metal, they are generally more robust than other types of artefacts and many have survived for future generations to appreciate.

Cleaning medals

There is much discussion about whether or not to clean and polish old medals, as some people think that cleaning and/or polishing an old medal will detract from its monetary value, and some collectors like the patina of old medals. In the end this is a matter of personal choice. Some suggest that medals can be cleaned by immersing in a solution of washing up liquid and using a soft toothbrush or cotton bud to clean crevices. This is probably a better method to use at home rather than using chemicals such as acetone or white spirit. Remember to remove the medal from any ribbon if you decide to wash it. Dry the medal carefully. Others do not recommend immersing medals in water, but simply suggest cleaning with a cotton bud or clean cloth.

Polishing medals

If you do decide to polish your medals after cleaning, you should use a non-abrasive, good quality, proprietary polish designed for the metal used in the medal. Avoid rubbing too vigorously as this can cause the details on the medal to become worn over time. This applies especially to the rim of older medals that may be engraved with the details of the recipient. Vigorous rubbing of a plated medal will soon wear away the plating. Silver ‘dipping’ cleaners are best avoided; these may over brighten old medals as they etch the substance of the silver and cause it to become worn more quickly. Use clean polishing cloths and try to remove every trace of polish so that the ribbon does not become stained.

Medal ribbons

Each medal is issued with a specific ribbon. The ribbons are clearly less robust than the medal, and tend to fade and deteriorate over time unless they are stored well. It is possible to purchase small lengths of medal ribbon to replace badly damaged or faded originals. It is perfectly ok to buy and attach a new ribbon to a medal that does not have one. Whether or not you want to discard damaged original ribbon is a personal choice as the value, both monetary and sentimental lies with the medal itself. Medal ribbon should not be immersed in water as the dyes used in older ribbons may run, and washing may weaken the structure of newer ribbons so that they become limp.

Mounting, display and storage

Medals were awarded to be worn, and many will be mounted so that they can be pinned to clothing. There are two types of mounting – swing mounted, where the medal ribbons are sewn to a pin at the top and the medal hangs free; and court mounted, where the medal ribbons are sewn to a stiff backing with a pin at the top and the medals are then sewn into a fixed position. Swing mounting puts more strain on the ribbon; but court mounting means there is more sewing of the ribbon which can cause it to fray. When not being worn, your medals should be stored safely wrapped in acid free tissue in an acid free card box. You can also keep them in polyester enclosures. If you want to display your medals, buy a case, frame or cabinet designed for medals, and ensure they are kept away from direct sunlight to avoid the ribbons fading by exposure to UVL. Oak, mahogany, chipboard and plywood are very acidic, so should be avoided as materials to make display cases.

Further information

The above advice if followed will not harm your precious family heirlooms. There are websites, many of which are authentic museum or archive sites, offering advice on cleaning and storing paper, books, documents, photographs and medals. If in doubt, you should contact an expert in paper, book, photograph or medal conservation. Avoid sites that do not have an expert writing the advice. If in doubt, doing nothing and storing appropriately will maintain the existing integrity of your item. The following websites contain useful information about caring for your possessions at home:

Australian War Memorial
USA – National Archive
UK – Victoria and Albert Museum