The life of every person is documented in some measure. Families accumulate many documents, commonly including accounts and financial records; wills, contracts and other legal agreements; passports and licences; certificates for births, marriages and deaths, educational awards and other achievements; property deeds, maps and plans; diaries and correspondence; genealogies, scrap-books and journals; photograph albums; cuttings, notices and other ephemera.
Some documents have a legal origin (such as property deeds) and should be kept safely, while others are historically significant (such as plans, accounts, journals and some diaries and correspondence), but all documents can become archives. Some are protected by statute (such as parish and court records) and should be lodged in a Public Record Office. Few documents are of significant monetary value. Those that are usually have an association with an historically important individual or event. Nevertheless, even the most recent family papers are the historical archives of the future and should be cared for in the same way as old documents. The use of digital information is increasing, but legally binding documents, usually requiring a signature, are still produced in paper (or ‘hard copy’) format.
Most family documents are made of paper, although some (principally old property deeds) are made of parchment, which is a material made from the limed skins of sheep, goats or similar animals. These materials are at risk from damp, mould, insects, pollution, unsuitable packaging and frequent or careless handling. All documents are damaged by light, particularly ultraviolet light which is present in daylight.
Having original documents at home or visiting a local archive or history centre gives you the opportunity to handle old materials and historical evidence, but there is a price to pay. Frequent handling results in the steady physical wear and tear of the original, possibly resulting in eventual loss of the document. In addition, the documents are vulnerable to damage caused by fluctuating environments and light.
A conservator can provide training and advice on the handling of documents and archival material, or help to draw up guidelines for users.
Conservators can provide advice on environmental monitoring and control. They will be able to show you how to monitor the environment and how to interpret the results of environmental monitoring.
Some materials have special storage and display requirements: for example parchment can be damaged if mounted in an inappropriate manner; it should not be treated like paper.
Consider making photographic copies for display, particularly if you want something to be displayed for a long time as this will allow access to information without putting the original document at risk.
Conservators can prepare documents and other archival material for storage and display, and give guidance on storage materials and suppliers. They will also be able to advise on the re-formatting of documents and other items.
Paper and parchment can be damaged irreversibly by inappropriate treatment. For example, the damage caused by self-adhesive tapes is all too apparent in the yellow staining and sticky residue they leave as they deteriorate. These tapes are extremely difficult to remove and their use should be avoided.
Documents should only be cleaned or repaired by trained conservators. Prevention is better than cure: your contribution towards careful storage and use will help to avoid the need for conservation treatment.
Conservators are trained to understand the composition of materials and the ways in which they deteriorate. They use this knowledge to stabilise vulnerable materials and devise methods for slowing down rates of deterioration. The input of a conservator can be invaluable and may help you in a number of different ways. Conservators can:
Use the Conservation Register to Find a conservator.
© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2011.
This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge use of the MGC publication 'Ours for Keeps' in the preparation of this text. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.