Preserving Old Letters
4/4/2013
You've got questions about discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history; our experts have the answers.
Q. I'm trying to find someone to tell me how to preserve old letters. I have a collection from German relatives dated from 1890 to 1900. Please help.

A. The durability of old documents depends on both the type of paper and the storage conditions. Paper made before around 1865 consists of cotton fibers, whereas most papers after that date are a combination of wood pulp and lignin. Lignin is the substance that makes your newspaper turn yellow in sunlight. In the late 19th century, stationery used for letter writing could be either type of paper.

To preserve the letters' content and appearance of the letters, I recommend scanning them (scan the envelopes, too, if you have them) at a high resolution. This will also help cut down on handling of the letters.

Then to slow deterioration and fading of the ink, and preserve your letters for future generations, store them flat in an acid- and lignin-free folder. This type of storage material is available from a variety of archival suppliers, such as Hollinger Metal Edge and Archival Methods.

Be sure to remove all paper clips, staples and rubber bands before storing your documents. Keep them in an environment with a stable temperature and humidity. Limit handling of the letters, and wash your hands before you do so.

For additional information on caring for your family documents and other heirlooms, see How to Archive Family Keepsakes by Denise May Levenick (Family Tree Books) and view our online video class At Home With the Family Archivist (available in ShopFamilyTree.com).
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