Library Blog

Preserving Your Family History Heirlooms

Old photo album, historical photos, magnifying glass image for Family History Heirlooms

Getting Organized:

If you’re like me, keeping information organized is a real challenge.  At no time is this more apparent, and important, than when dealing with the enormous amount of physical and digital bytes-and-pieces of our family history collections.  You know, all of those photographs, letters, family bibles, home movies, cds, dvds, flash drives, etc.  Even artifacts, like uniforms, wedding dresses and great-great grandpa’s musket, require specialized care.

Why is this important?  Obviously, we want to enjoy our collections.  To ensure our ability to do this, we need to keep them safe.  Many items, especially photographs and some digital media, are fragile and can degrade even under the best circumstances.

Further, we want to make sure that the past is preserved.  Genealogy is for the future, too, so we want to make sure that our descendants can, like us, take notice of the continuity that these family history collections reveal.  Fill out a Genealogical Codicil To My Last Will And Testament. It’s important to plan for the future by making sure at least one person in the family can and will carry on organizing and preserving the family’s information.

By the way, here are two outcomes from my own project.  First, I morphed into the family archivist and enjoyed in-depth knowledge of the collection.  I didn’t intend this, but I became the go-to person who could help cousins get answers to questions about the family’s past.  Second, there are few things in life more satisfying than finding something you need when you need it.  Organizing and preserving the collection helped me to know exactly what lives on in my family history treasure chest.

What to do….

Generally, the process involves first taking an inventory of your collections.  During this activity you can begin “stabilizing” the materials. This means physically evaluating all of the problems that threaten each item.  This may include: making sure the environment, i.e., temperature and humidity, is stable; removing paper clips and rubber bands from photos and papers; unfolding and flattening letters; and storing items in appropriate, archival quality enclosures and containers  Then you can proceed to apply specific treatments and organizing principles.

The following resources will discuss these and other steps, and provide overall guidance for how to think about your family heirlooms.  I am including other resources that will help to facilitate the do-it-yourself treatments, and get you in touch with bindery services and suppliers of preservation materials.

  • Among the several agencies out there that will help you get the information and assistance you may need, the best of the best is the Northeast Document Conservation Center.  In addition to free how-to leaflets, the NEDCC offers a 24×7 toll-free number to call for home emergencies, as well as a service to get free, expert answers to any question you may have about preserving and conserving home collections.
  • The U.S. National Archives offers simple tips that will help you preserve your family papers and photographs for the next generation. Preventing damage is the key to preserving your items.  Here, the Archives discusses the handling, storing, and digitizing of family papers and photographs.  Conservation treatments to repair damage are also shared.
  • The Library of Congress provides a “collections care” site that explains why paper and other materials degrade, and provides guidance on care and treatment techniques for various formats.
  • Conservation OnLine (CoOL) is a free online platform that provides links to resources for the general public.
  • Gaylord Archival offers a complete range of supplies.  Gaylord also provides free resources for learning how to undertake preservation projects at home.
  • Do you need a book or family bible professionally rebound?  Mechling Bookbindery is a well-known vendor located nearby.
Tim Seman

Tim Seman has worked in archives and libraries from Washington, D.C. to Youngstown, spanning more than thirty years.  A staunch abolitionist vegan, Tim shares life with a multispecies family, reads broadly, writes occasionally, and enjoys cooking and marksmanship.  Contact him at