Looking after personal papers

Many of us have precious and valuable documents and photographs stored in drawers, cupboards, the loft, and even under the bed! This general advice is intended to help protect these items for as long as possible. The main enemies to documents are:

Light - if documents and photographs are left in sunshine or brightly lit areas, over a period of time the colours will fade. Newspapers are made from poor quality paper and will quickly turn brown and become brittle.

Heat - can have a similar effect on documents as light. Documents stored near to fires, central heating pipes and radiators can become dry and brittle, and sometimes discolour.

Insects - such as silverfish and bookworm are attracted to paper documents. The hollow spines of books are dark places which some insects like to lay their eggs and hatch their young.

Damp - in areas of buildings such as the loft and the garage, the temperature can change through the year, and in winter become quite damp. Once documents become damp they can turn mouldy and the stains can be very difficult to remove.

Avoiding these problems?
The key to preserving your documents and photographs is to keep them in an environment where there is a good circulation of air and the temperature remains unchanged throughout the year.

Documents should be stored in archival containers away from direct sources of light and heat. Avoid using the loft or garage as these are vulnerable to extreme changes in temperature, and keep away from areas that are likely to flood. If you use a container check it regularly for any signs of insect infestation, and leave the lid off for a short while to let some fresh air in.

- keep everything flat and remove paper clips, staples and other metal fastenings that may turn rusty
- store newspapers separately from other documents, they are made of highly acidic paper and deteriorate quickly. Use acid-free boxes or put cuttings into scrapbooks that use acid-free paper.
- if possible use archival paper for photocopying and print-outs from a computer
- print photographs from the computer onto high quality paper. Use traditional photograph albums and acid-free photographic corners
- use archival plastic sleeves for storing papers in folders and files
- use cotton or vinyl gloves when handling photographs

- use wooden or metal boxes, shoe boxes, chocolate boxes, or rolled in newspapers, in plastic bags, or sealed air-tight enclosures.
- laminate documents or use sellotape, gummed tape or sticky labels to repair any tears
- put original documents on display in picture frames, have copies made and put these on display, with the original stored properly
- use self-adhesive photograph albums for your photographs as the adhesive will cause your photographs to discolour

If you are in any doubt, please contact a professional conservator, and do not attempt any repairs or remove anything that may cause damage, without seeking advice first.

Further advice
Information can also be found on the following websites:
- includes practical advice on looking after collections

- features advice on the preservation of documents