“When in Doubt, Don’t Throw It Out!”: Helping Your Family Records Survive


When Idaho’s Teton Dam collapsed in 1976, its churning waters and mud buried and carried away old diaries, letters, photographs, books of remembrance, and other irreplaceable records of the families living downstream. Larry Hibbert, for example, lost eleven years of research materials for his family’s history. The Jaques family lost most of the diaries and letters of ancestor John Jaques.

Although rare, such a large scale disaster illustrates in a dramatic way the quiet and smaller tragedies that constantly destroy records all around us. Indeed, given the array of natural and human “enemies” records face, the survival of any records from the past is barely short of miraculous. Stories about what really happens to our records, some told here, should motivate us to protect—not merely store—our family histories.

The First Enemy: Nature

If Mother Nature had her way, no records would survive. She is armed with many weapons, and one of the worst is water. I know a family who stored their grandfather’s journals in a cellar where moisture turned them into a mildewed, useless mess. Another family had filled shoeboxes with letters dating from the early 1900s and stacked them to the rafters of a double garage. But a clogged sewer backed foul water into the garage, so the soaked letters were trucked to the city dump.

Another of nature’s favorite weapons is fire. A few years ago I learned of a woman in Arizona who owned letters dating from the 1850s. When I asked her if we could store them, she sadly shook her head. “Two weeks ago we had a fire … ,” she began. During World War II, bombs and fires destroyed many LDS records in Europe.

Light does more damage, archivists tell us, than either water or fire. The ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun and by fluorescent lights cause photographs to fade and paper to yellow and become brittle. Movie and slide projectors occasionally blister films. And a slide or movie frame stopped in a projector for very long suffers almost immediate fading.

Insects and rodents do their share in destroying records. The Church Archives once received a large plastic bag filled with minute books from Hawaii dated near the turn of the century. They were paper-punched with worm holes. In the 1890s, Church historian Andrew Jenson reported that he found “some valuable records kept by the late Rasmus Olsen of Ephraim, deposited in the loft of an old house where they served as feed for mice.” (Diary, 23 Oct. 1890, Book E, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

If Mother Nature’s troops—water, fire, light, insects, mice—fail to ruin our records, she can always fall back on her “undercover” work. She has filled our records with ingredients to make them self-destruct. Products made from vegetable or animal materials—which include almost all of our record materials—are programmed to decay or disintegrate. Most of today’s paper, made from wood pulp, has an additional weakness. It is highly acidic due to the manufacturing process, and the sulfuric acid eats the fibers that hold the paper together.

Chemicals from the environment add to the problem. Sulphuric chemicals from automobile exhausts and air pollution combine in humid air to create sulphuric acid. Most glue is acidic. Spilled foods, tobacco smoke, and newspaper clippings all contain acid. Even the containers we store our records in have acids that migrate into our records. File folders, wood boxes, drawers, paper sacks, and especially cardboard boxes all do their best to destroy the records they were meant to protect.

The Second Enemy: People

“I was lucky to save these,” a young man told me, pointing to two dozen black books with red spines. “There must have been dozens of them, but these are all I could grab.” He had snatched the minute and roll books from churning dirt in front of a bulldozer that reduced an old Idaho church to rubble. Man is often a worse enemy of his own records than nature.

A woman from San Francisco showed me a shoe-box that had once been filled with letters dating from about 1850. They had detailed Elder John Taylor’s efforts to obtain sugar manufacturing equipment from France. She opened the box. Only a handful of the letters had survived. The others, she confessed, had gradually cracked and chipped as family members read and reread them over the years. With so much handling, the fragile pages had crumbled into a pile of postage-stamp size chips of paper. Those old records had literally been loved to death.

A similar problem occurs when a father or mother dies and the diaries he or she kept over the years are divided among the children. Dividing up a set of journals is every bit as destructive as taking a single journal and ripping it apart so relatives can each have some pages. Like broken Humpty-Dumpty, separated diaries rarely get back together again.

But if we were to present awards for destroyers of the past, the winners would be people who intentionally throw out their records. At two critical times, records run high risks of being thrown away: when someone moves and when someone dies.

Moving-time often triggers fatal decisions regarding records. At such moments old items, particularly if disorganized, seem like junk. The impulse to discard is especially strong for people moving into smaller quarters with limited storage space. Young people who leave home for college or careers often discard what they unwisely judge are “silly” juvenile diaries and letters. Newly engaged couples gallantly (and foolishly) throw out bundles of old love letters. (Why not return them to the “old flame” instead of destroying them?)

Death, particularly when unexpected, severely strains survivors who must make hurried and emotional decisions about the deceased’s belongings. Widows and widowers throw out valuable items in order to remove precious memories that hurt too much. Children or grandchildren, when closing down a deceased parent’s home, cart to the dump items not of interest to them—including letters and unlabeled photographs. (If pictures are not labeled, or if they contain scenes and faces known only to the deceased, odds are high the photos will never survive us.)

Sometimes families just grow weary of saving old items. The widow of a California congressman tried unsuccessfully to interest local libraries in his personal papers. Their lack of interest convinced her the papers had no value, so she burned them.

Preserving Our Records

Professional archivists recommend several ways to preserve records. They advise us, first, to use acid-free materials in making our records. And second, they advise us to store them properly.

The better the materials in our diaries, scrapbooks, albums, and letters, the longer they will last. Although archival-quality materials are becoming somewhat easier to find, by far the greatest selection is through archival supply houses such as Light Impressions in Rochester, N.Y.; University Products, Holyoke, Mass.; and Conservation Resources International and Hollinger Corporation in the Washington, D.C., area. Catalogues are available from all of these companies.

Paper. Use a 100 percent rag paper or, even better, a “permanent-life” paper such as Perma-life paper, Timeless Bond by Neenah Paper Co., or Genealogy Bond by Fox River Paper Company. These “permanent” papers are acid-free and are buffered with a calcium carbonate solution to keep them that way. Avoid cheap binder, ditto, and typing papers sold at the supermarket; these deteriorate within ten years.

Photocopy onto acid-free or 100 percent rag paper any items you have that are deteriorating or flimsy. (Be sure to use a machine that uses powdered toner). It is also adviseable to photocopy birth and wedding certificates and other valuable documents. Be sure to copy newspaper articles because they are so acidic they can easily stain nearby pages.

Newspaper articles can also be rinsed to remove the acid in them and prevent further decay. Simply fill a flat glass pan with distilled water and immerse the newspaper article. Allow it to soak for approximately fifteen minutes, changing the water if it becomes very yellow. Then carefully remove the article and allow it to dry flat.

Documents with handwriting can best be de-acidified by spraying them with a product called W’ei T’O.

You can make your own acid-free journal by placing these acid-free pages into a binder. Loose-page journals, with quality typing paper, last longer (if given a binding to keep pages from becoming lost) than store-bought hardcover journals with low price tags.

Store paper away from strong light, high heat, insects, car exhausts, and leaky pipes. Swings in temperature from hot to cold ruin paper fibers, as do fluctuations in humidity. Too much humidity triggers acid reactions in paper, causes mold, warps paper, and makes inks bleed. Too little humidity causes paper to become brittle. The ideal storage place is a room kept at about fifty degrees Fahrenheit with moderate humidity.

Letters and Documents. Bundles of letters should be unbundled and the letters unfolded and stored flat in manila folders, several to a folder. Archival-quality and acid-free folders are best.

Laminating documents and letters is a popular but poor practice. Archivists say that paper needs to breathe and cannot when sealed in plastic. To protect paper items, use plastic page covers of mylar D, poly-propelene, or polyethelene (not acetate or PVC—polyvinyl chloride). Or see an archivist about a process called “encapsulation.”

Writing Materials. Avoid using felt-tip pens and pencils when writing letters or in diaries and scrapbooks. Felt-tip inks bleed through paper, and pencil lines smear and erase easily. Instead, write with a permanent black ink ballpoint pen, such as “Spirit” by Faber-Castell or “Lindy Legal,” or type with a carbon ribbon.

Scrapbooks and Adhesives. Most scrapbooks on the market contain pages made of cheap paper. Look for scrapbooks with pages that feel like quality paper, or make your own from acid-free matboard. Archival suppliers offer long-lasting albums.

Most glues are bad for paper, particularly rubber cement. Transparent tape is almost as bad; it becomes yellow and brittle with age and stains and gums-up pages. Ask your nearby historical society or university archive for suggestions about “safe” glues available in your area. Dennison’s glue stick is recommended by some archivists and is available in most office supply stores. Stay away from pins, staples, and paperclips, as they rust and damage paper.

Books and Bound Journals. Books have the usual problems paper products have, but they also have covers that can become brittle and break. Broken spines can be repaired by bookbinders or library conservators. Leather covers, like all leather products, need periodic oil treatments to prevent drying out. When storing books, do not use cardboard boxes—they are highly acidic. Use acid-free boxes designed specifically for book storage.

Photographs and Film. Black-and-white photos, if processed on fiber-based paper and rinsed correctly, will last much longer than fade-prone color prints, slides, and movies. Polacolor prints and prints made from slides by the Cibachrome method are the most stable. Kodachrome slides have a longer dark storage life than Ektachrome slides, and videotapes will last longer than movie film if stored away from magnetic fields. Cool storage, away from ultraviolet light from the sun or from fluorescent lightbulbs, is essential in storing all types of photographs and film.

Label your photographs by name, place, date, and event. Use an all-graphite pencil available at art stores, writing lightly on the photo backs near the edges. Felt-tip inks bleed through. Ballpoint pens have sharp points that make impressions and damage the picture surface.

Negatives, easily damaged by dirt and fingerprints, should be stored in “safe” plastic such as mylar D, polypropelene, or polyethelene. Glad sandwich bags are made of polyethelene and are readily available.

Archivists warn against gluing pictures on paper or putting them into “magnetic” albums with press-down plastic pages that chemically react with and damage picture surfaces. (See Ensign, Oct. 1979, p. 37.) Instead, try to use acid-free photo albums with mylar photo corners or a little bit of Dennison’s glue stick. You don’t even need to fasten the photos to the page if you cut slits in the pages into which you can tuck the four corners of the photo. Pictures should be mounted in albums so that they do not “kiss” one another across the pages when the album is closed. Or you can use sheet protectors made of mylar D, polyethelene, or polypropelene.

Slides should be labeled and stored in a cool, dark place in such a way that no other slide or plastic touches the film itself. To prevent premature fading, don’t project slides longer than thirty seconds at a time.

To minimize fading of wall-mounted photographs, replace the glass in your frames with a special plexiglass that has a UF3 filter which screens out ultraviolet light. Always use an acid-free matting so that the picture does not touch the material covering it.

Tape Recordings. Avoid using 90-minute and 120-minute cassettes. They contain thin, fragile tape that jams easily, tangles, and lets sounds “print-through” from one wind of tape to the next. Record on 60-minute cassettes and then play them yearly—don’t run them through on fast-forward or fast-rewind. Recordings on sturdier, thicker reel-to-reel tapes will last longer than cassettes, but reels also need to be played periodically to keep them loose. Buy name-brand tapes, not the discount specials. Select cassettes that can be unscrewed and taken apart, rather than the sealed ones you must crack open to fix.

Label the tapes. Store them at room temperature. Stand reel-to-reel tapes on edge—when stored flat their big plastic reels begin to droop and warp. Keep all recordings away from magnets and from motors or appliances which create magnetic fields that can “rearrange” the sounds on the tape. To protect against accidental erasures, make copies and store the originals. Cassettes come with two holes in their backs which, when punched out, prevent you from accidentally rerecording them.

Although there is no way to preserve your records indefinitely, there is much you can do to make sure they survive you and your immediate family. All it takes is a little time and care. Your efforts may mean more to future generations than you may now realize.

More Ideas for Preserving Records

Here are a few general suggestions that will help you preserve your records.

1. Make security copies of your most valuable records and store the copies in a building separate from where the originals are kept. Photocopy diaries and scrapbooks onto acid-free paper. Store photograph negatives away from home. Lock extremely valuable items in a safety deposit box. Your records can be copied onto microfilm or microfiche and the originals or the copies donated to a nearby archive.

2. Store family records where you have reasonable access to them but beyond the reach of children. Keep your records away from plumbing, basement floors, sunlit windows, heaters, air conditioners, and places with unregulated temperatures. Store them in a container which you can quickly and easily rescue in case of a fire, flood, or other disaster.

3. Wash your hands before handling your records, and keep food and drinks away from them. Dirt, skin oils, and food particles make organic materials like your records deteriorate faster.

4. If a valuable book, paper, or document becomes soaked, freeze it until you can contact a conservator to learn how to rescue it.

5. Make written provisions in your will or elsewhere to help your family know what to do with your records when you die. This will also prevent selfish “grabs” and bickerings about who gets what.

6. When the impulse strikes to discard old records, stifle it. Instead, contact a nearby historical society, library, or university and ask them to examine the items and take what they wish. As a general rule, “when in doubt, don’t throw it out.”

[illustration] Illustrated by Chris Creek

William G. Hartley is a faculty member at Brigham Young University where he directs the Family History and Genealogy Research Services Center and is a historian for the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History.