By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
People amass stuff. We are all hoarders of one type or another; we just prefer to be called collectors or connoisseurs. We tuck our prized collections away in corners of closets, in attics, in garages and occasionally in storage facilities because we cherish these items. We want to keep them as mementos, memories or keepsakes to show our descendants and maybe have those people love them the same. The question is: are we storing them properly? We want to save these pieces of who we are for the future, but are they going to make it to the future? Libraries have been worrying about this for ages and there are many great places to find information on preserving your collections. Actually, there is too much information out there so here we will pull together the most important as well as the easiest steps for preserving your materials such as books, newspapers, magazines, comic books, film, slides, negatives, magnetic tape (both audio and video), records and even a little on documents and art.
Once again, cleanliness is essential. Clean hands, or even archivist gloves, and a clean workspace are ideal for going through your old photographs. Ideally, photos should be stored at 40 degrees or less in a location with 30 to 40% humidity. This is very specific because the stability of modern color photos degrades with heat and according to the preservation department of the Library of Congress, “Relative humidity is the single most important factor in preserving most photographic prints.” Never let adhesives come in contact with photographic prints and only mount them on acid free cardstock.
If you are dealing with a photo that has deteriorated or if you are working with an older format like tin or daguerreotypes you will probably want to consult a professional. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has an online directory of conservators to help you find one in your area.
Films, Slides and Negatives
Film and slides contain cellulose, an organic substance, and as such are subject to decay. Temperature and humidity are mentioned here time and again, but here it is most important. The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) recommends storage at 40-50° and 20-40% relative humidity. They also suggest freezing film, but this is for long term storage and should be done in the proper manner, starting in a middle to low humidity environment, packaging the material and freezing them for very long term. This is not a thing you want to do if you are planning on getting these items out next week or even next month. These materials are the best case for digital transfer. There are many services out there that can help you get these materials digitized for future use and reproduction.
Magnetic Tape Recordings (reel to reel, 8-Track, cassette and Video Tape)
When you are working with magnetic recordings storage should be considered. While demagnetization is unlikely, it can happen so avoid storing your material near large machinery and electrical transformers. Handle reel to reel tapes from the edge and center hole only. Grasping the reel itself to hard can break the reel or crush the delicate tape. Any kind of cassette should only be handled by the outside edges. Do not touch the spools. Store them in a cool place with lower to mid-level humidity.
Other Audio Sources (Records, Wax Cylinders, CDs)
Never mess with the groove. When handling any of these older recordings keep your fingers confined to the label for records, the center hole for CDs, and for the truly old cylinders, just the edges. The grooves are where the recorded material is read by the needle or laser and damage will come from your fingerprints and any dirt on your hands. They should also be stored upright with dividers every six inches to support them in cool dry places. Always allow these materials to reach room temperature in the room where they are to be played before using them if they are stored at a low temperature. Always store like sized material together. Make sure manufacturers cleaning instructions are followed for all playback devices.
Most people do not have a Monet in their house or a painting from the Dutch masters in their office waiting room, but with art there is no telling what will become valuable. For forty years the Jesuit house in Dublin, Ireland had a painting hanging in their parlor. In the 1990s it was determined to be a lost Caravaggio. You never know what may come of the paintings on your walls, so it never hurts to take care of them properly.
As with every other type of material, cleanliness is the first and easiest step. Make sure that you handle paintings by the sides of the frame, not the painting itself, and have enough people for the job. Dust your paintings with “a clean, soft, natural-hair artists’ brush (3.5cm to 5cm tip)” in one direction if there is no peeling or cracking evident in the paint according to the Smithsonian Institution. Display your art where there is a little exposure to UV light and as little fluctuation in temperature and humidity as possible and avoid extremes in both. Finally, make sure art is hung with the proper hardware and check those hooks, wires and brackets periodically to make sure they are in good condition.