I’ve inherited an ever-increasing number of family history materials, and have been working for a while at determining the best way to care for each of them. The one whose care I consider particularly urgent is a specific scrapbook I inherited.
The paste has not weathered well, and many items have simply fallen off of the pages and are now loose in the scrapbook:
Additionally, there are a number of pages with non-flat items pasted onto them, affecting the scrapbook:
There are also some pages of handwritten entries, occasionally with a piece of ephemera stuck between them (ephemera that appears to have always been loose), as here:
Unusually, the leather cover is the one thing that’s in good shape in the scrapbook:
I’ve attended a number of events and lectures on ways to care for family history items, and am looking forward to attending a couple more in the upcoming months. In April I attended an event on preservation and conservation at New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS). It was the day after New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC) 2013 ended [I wrote three blog posts this spring on my time at NERGC for anyone who's interested but hasn't read them], and luckily I did not fully realize this when I signed up, as I probably wouldn’t have gone if I had.
The event featured lectures on a variety of preservation and conservation topics from staff at NEHGS and the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), and after the lectures ended, attendees had the opportunity to consult with experts from NEHGS and NEDCC on specific items. In my years going to NEHGS, I had become acquainted with their head conservationist, and I showed her some photos of my poor-shape scrapbook and asked her advice.
She happened to have a scrapbook with her that had originally had several of the same issues as mine but had been conserved by an archivist from the same archival school that the conservationist had attended, so she was able to physically show me one approach to conserving a scrapbook. The scrapbook had been moved from its original binding and a strip of 4-ply museum board had been attached to the inner edge of each page. For pages that had items attached which protruded (as my scrapbook has as well), two strips of 4-ply museum board had been attached to cushion the object from potentially damaging other pages and/or the binding. Archival plastic was between each page for protection. While she wasn’t 100% sure since she hadn’t done the work herself, she believed the screws the archivist had used to bind the restored scrapbook together were likely aluminum so that they wouldn’t rust.
I meant to finish and post this shortly after the event, but it has been nearly three months now and I have attended another pertinent event in the intervening time. Cambridge Historical Society [of Massachusetts] holds Open Archives Tours every summer, and this was my second year attending. For the first time, this year they held an “Ask the Experts” open house the last day of the tours, where people could bring in an archival item and ask one of the archivists in attendance for advice on conserving and/or preserving it.
I brought my photos of the scrapbook along again. The paper expert was busy the whole hour-plus I was there with an older woman who had brought an entire box of materials she’d inherited along, but I didn’t mind; I asked another archivist, the one from Cambridge’s Department of Public Works, his opinion on my scrapbook. He noticed right away that the binding is a tie, and suggested undoing it and putting each page in an archival sleeve. The previous expert I’d consulted about the scrapbook had suggested putting the fallen-out items back into their original places, but this expert suggested I might want to use a professional archival item that removes the paste from the fallen-out items instead, so that they would not potentially be able to damage any items that remain pasted in the scrapbook, and then keep the fallen-out items in the same archival sleeve as the page from which they fell. This archivist was very interested in the content of the scrapbook, studying the items the viewer can see in the photographs, so I told him some about the scrapbook and the family that produced it.
I follow the basic rule of the first conservation expert whose workshop I attended: I don’t want to remove the items from the scrapbook entirely as that would destroy the coherency of an artifact that was made by someone who is no longer alive to reassemble it, destroying its uniqueness as an object. You may have noted that both the suggestions, while not exactly the same in the details, also followed this principle. Neither of the experts asked me whether I had a preference for doing the conservation myself or having a trained professional do it, nor whether I would be able to pay someone else to do the work. Their suggestions are fairly similar, but the first suggestion deals directly with one more issue than the second one – what to do about the pages that have raised items on them. As of this posting, I have yet to decide what to do about the scrapbook, though I know that time is of the essence.
A huge note of caution: At the NEHGS event, I learned that a product sold as “acid-free” in the United States only means that the product was completely free of acid at the moment it was produced. It does not mean it will continue to be acid-free and in many cases, these products degrade to the point where they are emitting acid, sometimes rather quickly. The best way to obtain products that continue to remain acid-free is to buy archival-quality products from a reputable archival company that professionals also use.
As someone who has read a number of books about caring for family history archives, the one I’ve found the most helpful so far is Help! I’ve Inherited an Attic Full of History by Althea Douglass. A number of new books have come out in the past few years, including books by Denise Levenick (@FamilyCurator) of the blog The Family Curator and Melissa Mannon (@archivesinfo) of the site ArchivesInfo, but I have yet to read any of them.
Overall I recommend reading books, attending workshops/lectures, etc., from a variety of experts, because as my experiences in this post illustrate, opinions vary a little to a lot on how to deal with both general care and specific issues.