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Preserving Your Letters and Documents

A preservation worker labeling folders
Labeling folders

Letters, documents and photographs give us windows into our past. They carry both the individual stories of our families and the broader historical narrative of local, national and global communities. These simple techniques are an easy and economical method to preserve and prolong the life of your family papers and treasures for generations.

Getting Started

  • Use clean hands. Avoid lotion and hand sanitizer since they contain chemicals that can harm papers and photographs.

  • Keep food and drinks away from collection while working.

  • Work on a clean, flat surface.

  • Use only pencil if marking the documents and do it in a discreet location. Making permanent marks alters the history.

  • Do not use paperclips, staples, rubber bands, sticky notes or other such fasteners. They cause stains and tears and should be removed if it is possible to do so without damaging the documents.

  • Remove letters from envelopes to prevent excessive wear, but store them together because the envelopes may contain important information not found in the letters.

  • Take care flattening folded or rolled documents. Frequent folding and unfolding weakens the paper’s fibers and leads to tears. The Preservation Staff have created a video to a safe method for flattening documents.

Letters being sorted
Letters being sorted

Organizing Documents

  • Arrange papers in an order that will make sense, such as by date, person or location.

  • Place each document in its own acid-free folder or separate by interleaving buffered-bond paper, which will reduce further deterioration.

  • Put photographs in folders or sleeves labeled “PASSED PAT,” which indicates the material passed the Photographic Activity Test and will not harm photographs.

  • Label the top of each folder briefly describing the contents.

Preservation worker organizing letters into folders
Organizing letters into folders

Storing Collections

  • Use acid-free boxes for long-term storage to reduce further deterioration.

  • Fill the boxes so items do not shift, but do not overstuff since too much pressure on paper fibers can cause them to break.

  • Record, in detail, the contents of each container. Place a copy of the list in the box to prevent excessive handling of folders and their contents.

  • Label the outside of the box with a brief description of its contents to help locate desired papers and to prevent excessive handling.

  • Store organized containers off the floor to prevent water damage. Keep them in an environment with stable temperature and humidity levels by avoiding attics, basements, garages, exterior walls and windows.

  • Learn about the 10 Agents of Deterioration to understand what other hazards to avoid.

Completed archival document box
Completed archival document box

Using Keepsake Albums

  • Make sure album is large enough to accommodate all documents in the collection without folding or bending.

  • Place documents in polyester or polypropylene sleeves that are slightly bigger than the actual document so that they are easy to slip in or out. Place only one document per sleeve to reduce handling and damage.

  • Store the pages in an album with a slipcase that will protect it from light and dust.

Album with slipcase
Album with slipcase

Framing for Display

  • Choose mat board that is acid-free to prevent deterioration of document.

  • Use corner mounts to attach the document to the mat board. Do not use tape, which leaves residue and can rip the document.

  • Select UV filtered acrylic or glass to reduce light exposure and fading.

  • Do not let the document touch the glass.

  • Hang the frame away from direct sunlight.

 


Keep and Preserve Your History

Downloadable brochure (pdf)

Preservation Resources

National Postal Museum Preservation Resources’ page provides a list of suppliers for museum-quality storage options mentioned above as well as articles to help learn more about preserving your collection.

The videos and articles also highlight many of the fascinating projects undertaken by the museum’s preservation department.

Digitizing your Personal Archive

This website by the Library of Congress has recommendations on how to scan your collections, such as letters and photographs, and how to archive your digital files.