Every now and then in genealogy, you will acquire an ancient document for your collection. You may get this document through a gift from a family member, a distant cousin you met on the Internet, at an in-person or online auction, or any other number of interesting and unusual ways. You could even find one in an old book you buy, or in some elderly relative’s attic. A document is considered ancient if it is a century old or older, and its age is usually showing. While some ancient documents are in better condition than others, they must all be handled carefully to make sure they are preserved for future generations. Here’s how to do it.
If the document is falling apart already, you’ve got to take drastic conservation steps to preserve it. Smooth it out as much as possible, doing so on a flat, clean surface, while wearing archival safe gloves, so the oil on your fingers doesn’t get on the document. Handle it extremely gently to avoid any more pieces of it falling off. Once it’s smoothed and easy to read, with most of the crinkles worked out of it, transfer it into an acid-free, archival safe plastic sheet holder. Then, store it flat, in a place well away from anything that may bend it in any way, and make sure the place you keep it is dark and cool. A dark and cool environment will ensure the document’s ink or pencil writing does not fade, and that mold does not grow on it. Store it up high to prevent water damage in case of a flood. Keeping it in a fireproof safe is an ideal location, as long as there is enough room in the safe for the document to lay flat. A safe deposit box at the bank will also do, if you don’t mind keeping your document away from the house.
The oldest and most frail documents should be preserved and stored this way. Ancient documents that are in better shape, and/or are newer, relatively speaking, can be kept in acid-free, archival safe plastic sheet protectors in three-ring binders along with your other family documents. The key to keeping any ancient document in good shape is to use acid-free, archival safe storage materials and keep it safe from humidity, water, and light, as well as any further folding or bending.
It is also important to avoid touching ancient documents with your fingers if you can avoid it. Using archival safe gloves is the way to do it to ensure the document stays in the best shape. If you touch the document with your bare fingers, the oils from your fingers will get on it and build up on the document, causing greasy residue, and making the ink or pencil writing smear. The acids in the oils in your fingers will also eventually start to break down the paper.
Once you know how to preserve ancient genealogical documents, you will always be able to keep your precious family records safe. This is a favor you are doing not only for future generations, but for the past generations who made the documents in the first place.