Looking after documents

Storage

The place you choose to store your documents is essential to keeping them well preserved. The wrong environment can cause damage to your items and be costly to your collection.

The best environment for document storage is somewhere cool and dry – away from centrally-heated rooms with fluctuating temperatures and humidity. Aim for good ventilation. It’s also important to avoid exposure to light, dust, pollutants, rodents and insects.

It’s also important to consider the materials you use to store your documents. Try to avoid using acidic and plastic packaging materials, rubber bands, glue, Sellotape, paperclips, staples and drawing pins, as these can damage documents.

Make sure your documents are supported physically by tying them in bundles (using cotton tape, rather than thin cord or string) or keeping them in folders and boxes. Store larger volumes flat and avoid pulling them from shelves by their headcaps (the top bit of the book’s spine).

Do not keep any cellulose nitrate-based film (all 35mm film and all photo negatives made before c1952) in storage. It’s very unstable, and – in extreme cases – can self-ignite. Contact your local record office for copying or advice.

Handling

It’s best to avoid handling docs as much as possible, but if you need to touch them, make sure you handle documents carefully and with clean hands.

Avoid folding, leaning on or writing on documents. Use pencil when making notes – not pen.

Upkeep

Regularly check for signs of acetic acid decay (otherwise known as ‘vinegar syndrome’) and mould growth. Not only can these damage documents, but they also present a health hazard when inhaled. Seek specialist help if you notice mould or a strong vinegar smell on your documents, photographs or film.

Don’t try and repair damaged documents yourself. Seek the advice of a skilled archive conservator by getting in touch with your local record office.

To ensure your documents are kept as securely as possible, consider depositing them at your local record office where a specialist team will take care of them. This way, you can contribute to a piece of local history while knowing your documents are in safe hands.