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Taking care of your family archives

This article is intended to provide simple and practical guidance to anyone who is looking after their family heritage. The articles will cover, for example, what family archives are, what to keep, taking care of the physical condition of the archives, how to package and store the archives, organising the archives, compiling an inventory or list, managing the digital archives, digitising family archives, managing your family archives project and advice on next steps to take. The sections to date are:

1 What are family archives?
2 What to keep
3 Taking care of the physical condition of the archives
4 Packaging requirements and options for your family archives
5 Storage environment for your family archive
6 Arrangement of your family archives

Many people hold on to at least some records throughout their lives, but few keep the records in such a condition that would ensure their survival into the future. The interest in genealogy and family history research has grown rapidly recently and with that, a need to preserve records of the past.

In order to preserve your family heritage it is necessary to know what family archives are and which are essential records to tell your family’s story.

1 What are family archives?

Family papers are those things that we have saved because they mean something to us, they are our treasures and they tell us something about ourselves, our families and our friends: how we've lived our lives and what we value most.

These collections may include books (such as Bibles or history books), diaries or journals, loose documents (such as birth, death or marriage certificates), financial records, legal documents, deeds, letters, cards, postcards, house plans, school reports, exam or awards certificates, family cookbooks or recipe cards (especially handwritten books or cards), newspaper cuttings, photographs, tickets from events and shows, and maps and medals.


2 What to keep

At this stage you consider your reasons for preserving your family heritage. If your goal is to preserve the archives for future generations, you have to ensure that the records you keep can be managed effectively and you have enough space to store your archives. This will mean gathering together all your family records which are buried or tucked away in closets, drawers, attics, and garages. It does not matter if you have one small box or 10 big boxes, just combine all the records together in one place.

At this point, you are now ready to assess what you own. This isn’t a detailed assessment, but rather a chance (and for some this may be the first time) to see all of your family papers in one place.

Selecting specific records for preservation takes careful consideration as unfortunately, you can’t preserve everything. Consider saving those family papers that contain information that is unique, significant and in the most concise form. While this varies among families, examples of such papers include letters, diaries, photographs, and legal documents such as deeds.

At the same time, determine whether there are any surplus records that can be removed or even destroyed. While sorting your archives, ask yourself: Is this item worth the time and the cost of archival storage supplies to be part of my archives?

A suggestion is to roughly sort the paper records into categories. It is easier to evaluate, list and store records that are the same type or format, i.e. letters, diaries, address books, photographs, etc. Once the records have been categorised, you will have an idea of which of the categories contain vital information and which do not warrant permanent preservation.

The purpose of the selection process is to secure an appropriate documentary reflection of the time and environment in which the records were created. You will have to select the records which provide the best, the richest, most focused evidence of their time. Some people find this an easier process than others.


The paper records that most people possess and that in my opinion should be preserved are:

Bibles, family history books, diaries or journals, birth, death and marriage certificates, identification documents, passports, wills, divorce papers, driver’s licences, letters, cards, postcards, house plans and deeds, school reports and newsletters, exam or awards certificates, newspaper cuttings, address books, birthday books or calendars, church newsletters, children’s health cards, documents relating to work and retirement, photographs, concert programmes, event and show tickets, membership newsletters (professional and related to hobbies) and maps.

The following additional paper records are not essential records, but I would advise that you do not destroy them immediately:

Salary slips, membership newsletters (shops, banks, etc.), motor vehicle registrations and licences, receipts, medical aid statements and claims, bank statements, bank books, cheques, deposit and withdrawal slips, municipal accounts, cell phone accounts, long and short term insurance policies (already paid out or expired), details of expired loans, etc.

The problem with these additional records is that they accumulate very quickly and you have to consider whether to give your full attention and resources to these rather than more valuable records. If you want to keep examples of these records a suggestion is to keep one monthly statement each year or one or two receipts every month to show how prices changed through the years, or one salary slip a year to show how salaries changed. Remember that your primary goal is to preserve your family history archives.

There are certain financial records that you will legally have to keep for a few years, but if there are just a small amount I would perhaps consider keeping them longer, i.e. investments, shares, income tax documents, etc

It can be hard to let go of anything that might carry a family story, no matter how old or broken that keepsake might be. You have to think through this carefully before making a decision, because if you destroy them, you cannot get them back and most of them will be irreplaceable.

3 Taking care of the physical condition of the archives

You already know what family archives are and what you want to preserve forever. You also know how to start sorting your paper records into categories. The next step should be to finish sorting in order to compile an inventory, however, it is also essential to properly care for the records before packing them in storage containers.

Taking proper care of these precious archives will enable future generations to use and enjoy the records of their heritage. Preserving them can be achieved in a variety of ways. There are basic preventative measures which anyone can employ to help extend the life of their collection. The only way to do this is by systematically work through the records to perform basic preservation tasks.


It is important to carefully remove all damaging fasteners such as staples, paper clips and pins and replace them, only if absolutely needed, with non-rusting ones. Rust residue can be brushed off with a soft brush, but be careful that you don’t damage the paper even further.

Archives should be cleaned prior to packaging. This will significantly extend their useful life. Hold the volume firmly closed and wipe with a cloth. A magnetic wiping cloth is preferable, since it does not contain chemicals or other substances that could be left behind. If loose dust or dirt is present, use a very soft, wide brush (e.g. a haké type brush which is available at art supply shops) to gently brush it away. A soft brush is always handy when you work with records. If archives are covered with a heavy layer of dust, vacuuming may be advisable, but only use vacuum cleaners that have been approved for cleaning archives which come with a soft brush attachment. Other vacuum cleaners may damage your books and could suck pieces of your paper in.

Letters that are folded in envelopes should be removed from the envelopes and unfolded. The creases made by folding and unfolding paper records can cause damage and eventually those creases get weak and can cause records to tear into pieces. Do not press or force the pages flat. Gently fold back any creased corners.

If your records are infested with insects, isolate these items so that the insects don’t spread. Insects can be difficult to eradicate. Consider the value of the item and if it can be replaced by, for example, a mass market book. Alternatively you could make a copy of the specific page(s). Consult a conservator about valuable or sentimental items that are infested with pests.

One of the biggest threats and challenges is mouldy records. Mould can be a health hazard to people, so limit handling mouldy items. Remove the source of water or high humidity to stop mould growing. Replace the item or make a copy of the item. Consult a conservator to treat valuable or sentimental items. An experienced conservator will treat the mouldy items by placing them in Ziploc bags in a freezer to kill the mould. When the mould is dry the mould can be brushed off every page. Work outside on a sunny windless day (since it is hazardous to your health and you don’t want mould spreading throughout your home) wearing protective gear (N100 dust masks, some nitrile gloves, and an inexpensive soft-bristled paintbrush or two). The cleaned materials should be safe to handle if you brush off every page. Once cleaned store these items in an environment where the humidity does not get above 60%. It is possible to get rid of the mould, but do not treat them without the advice or assistance of a conservator.


If your photographs are stored in the old "magic" photo albums with sticky pages (of the 1970s and 1980s) it is better to remove them from these albums. Not only does the adhesive in these albums become very sticky over time making it difficult to remove the photos, the adhesive can also turn brown and stain the back of the photo and the acetate covers of the earlier albums can shrink and expose the photos to dust. If the photos are difficult to get out of the album, you can remove them carefully with un-waxed dental floss.

The problem with fading ink is that it is difficult to bring it back. You can create a high-quality digital image and then manipulate the photo to enhance the writing. The original document can be safely stored so the ink doesn't continue to fade. Unfortunately, there is no way to restore the ink on the original document.

There is no safe and easy way to remove tape from your documents unless you work with a conservator. The tape's adhesive will often be stronger than the underlying paper so trying to remove it will most likely damage it beyond repair. The best thing to do is to get a good quality scan so you don't lose the information and then simply protect the item as well as you can. As the tape ages, the adhesive will dry up and the tape itself will fall off but the adhesive will remain.

Older documents and photographs sometimes turn yellow and unfortunately there is little that can be done to reverse the yellowing. The best approach is to have the photograph scanned and digitally retouched. You can then have the photo printed out to whatever size you would like and safely store the original.

Stains on records are very difficult to reduce or remove without doing irreparable damage even for professional conservators. The best approach would be to have the photograph scanned and digitally retouched. You can then print the photo and safely store the original.

Labels, barcodes, and "protective" tape coverings on documents are difficult to remove and since it is a very tricky process, one should leave it to a conservator. Removing tape simply leaves a sticky residue which will attract dust and cause additional damage. There is no product to remove the residue safely without causing even more damage.

Torn papers can be repaired by a professional conservator. Until that is possible, carefully store the pieces together in a plastic sleeve where you can still read the information.

The best solution for most of your basic preservation needs is to clean the items with a soft brush and to either make photocopies of the items or scan them so the original record can be safely stored in archival-quality sleeves.

These are just a few basic preventative preservation duties to extend the useful life of your archives, but there are many more. The two basic rules are to read more about preventative care and to consult a professional conservator to perform detailed treatments when necessary.

4 Packaging requirements and options for your family archives

Good packaging is the key to preserve archival materials. Good quality acid free packaging materials will prolong the life of your archives. The best packaging material should provide protection both from inherent chemical degradation (preventing acid damage) and from physical damage caused by external elements such as light, moisture, and airborne pollutants such as dust, soot and insect sprays. Materials should meet preservation standards, since poor-quality materials can cause irreparable damage. The words 'acid-free' and 'archival' on products does not always mean that a product is safe to use. Look for materials which are also described as 'wood free', 'lignin free', 'alkaline buffered', or 'permanent'.

Acidity in poor-quality paper can migrate into your items, discolour them, accelerate deterioration, fall apart, and threaten the physical safety of the items they are intended to protect. Plastics vary in chemical stability and should be used with caution. Chemically unstable plastics produce by-products that accelerate the breakdown of paper or contain volatile plasticizers that can cause items to stick to their surface and colours and ink to run. Three types of plastic meet preservation standards: polypropylene, polyester, and polyethylene. Only polyesters free of plasticizers, ultraviolet inhibitors, dyes and surface coatings are chemically stable.

Boxing of archives is crucial to their preservation. While sorting your archives, you should place them into suitable containers for protection. Boxes, file covers and other packaging materials should be made of archival-quality materials. Boxes should be custom made to fit a record's dimensions exactly. Do not fold items to fit into a file cover; provide a cover/box that suits the size of the item.

Types of enclosures and other materials to use:

Boxes: The most simple and cost effective way to store your items is in a good quality acid free box. This sort of box creates its own micro climate which buffers items from the environment. The box should also be made from good quality material and be large enough for everything to fit into, without being crushed or damaged. Boxes should be sized according to storage needs. If a box is too big, the items will slouch and crease; if it's too small, they will be cramped and stick to each other. Use boxes with a base and a lid as these are easy to open and give easy access to the contents. Choose boxes that are strong enough to support your records. A sturdy box not only provides a barrier between your records and the elements, but also minimizes the chance that the records may become distorted, creased or torn. It also minimises the risk of the box itself deteriorating over time or collapsing when you move it. However, overly strong boxes may also add unnecessary weight that can lead to handling and space problems.

Paper folders and sleeves: Paper folders can be made from a sheet of A3 paper to fit all shapes and sizes of documents. A simple single creased paper folder can protect a damaged or fragile item, even items that are already in several pieces. The ideal type of packaging for books is a three-dimensional folder made from strong acid free board called folding box board. It can encase fragile books, but can also store large groups of items such as documents or diaries. Acid free four flap folders are good for small groups of papers, photographs, or single items.

Use acid-free, lignin-free folders or archival plastic enclosures. The crystal clear polyester sleeves facilitate the view of the items. Archival folders and heavy archival plastic sleeves help support fragile records. Acid-free sheet protectors, although suitable, are too flimsy to add support. For photographs, use a clear polyester sleeve with an acid free board cut to size to support the photograph. This allows safe storage without handling the image. Polyester sleeves without the board can be used for documents.

Rolls: Large flexible sheets can be stored rolled up. Roll them onto a sturdy tube so it is less likely to be crushed. Use an archival quality paper tube that is buffered with low-lignin content. Select a tube that is at least 4 cm longer than the width of the widest sheet.

Silica Gel packets: The little packets of silica gel that you find in a new box of shoes can help absorb excess moisture whilst items are in storage. They will also help protect your family papers. Gather these packets and put them in your storage box. When you check the box again, check to see if the packets are hard and solid. If so, it means that the crystals inside have absorbed excess moisture. This means that you will now have to replace the silica gel packet and find somewhere else to store your boxes, since there is too much moisture in the air in the current storage place.

Other materials: All papers for use between sheets should meet preservation specifications. Only use adhesives, tapes and labels that are chemically stable and archival quality.

Materials to avoid for storing family papers:

Do not use tins that can rust. Avoid materials that can cause physical damage, discolour over time, or may be difficult to remove in the future. Do not use ordinary conventional cardboard, paper and plastics, since they contain chemicals that are harmful to your archives, (i.e. they can cause discolouration and the breakdown of paper fibres). Avoid coloured papers for packaging, even plain brown paper, since they contain acidic components which can harm your records. Don’t use PVC plastic sleeves, folders or albums, as they give off damaging vapours.

Don’t use photo albums with sticky pages, since the removal of photographs from the pages becomes difficult as the adhesive ages. Do not laminate your records, since once the lamination is applied it cannot be easily removed and will result in the slow deterioration of your item. Never keep records loose inside drawers or containers, since dust, light, ink and liquid spills can ruin paper left unprotected. Never use sticky tape for repairs, since the adhesives will cause tacky yellow stains on your items, which are difficult to remove.

Final thoughts:

It is not cheap to buy acid-free boxes for all your family archives. Start with getting at least acid-free folders for the records. This way, the folders (which are directly in contact with your items) are safe and will protect your items from the non-acid-free boxes. Replace the old boxes gradually with new acid-free ones to keep your treasures safe. Investing in good packaging will help extend the lifespan of your records.

A number of suppliers specialise in a range of archival packaging products (see for example This should be seen as an investment. Choosing the right paper products for wrapping and packaging is crucial.

5 Storage environment for your family archives

The future of your family archives depends on the actions that you take to prevent damage. Therefore, it is necessary to minimise the threats to them by creating favourable environmental conditions that will ensure the continued survival of your records.

After arranging of your archives, the labelled containers should be moved to clean shelves. Metal filing cabinets can also be used to provide good protection from the elements. Steel shelving is the best option, especially epoxy coated steel shelving. If open shelves are used, box your archives for protection against threats such as dust and light. An interior closet with shelves at least 20 cm off the floor is often a good place to create a home archives.

wood or steel

Pack items vertically on the shelves. Smaller items should be stored upright. Oversized, heavy, fragile, or damaged items should be stored flat for overall support. Arrange the items so that the shelves are full. This prevents items from leaning and avoids putting strain on the bindings. However, don’t pack them too tightly or damage may occur when they are removed. If shelves are not full, use non-damaging bookends to hold the items upright. Books should be stacked only when absolutely necessary, and stacks should only contain 2 - 3 volumes. Stacked archives should be individually boxed, especially volumes with valuable bindings, to prevent abrasion.

Good air circulation should be maintained in storage areas. Archives should never be stored directly against walls but a few centimetres away from them to facilitate the movement of air and to avoid the occurrence of pockets of damp air. This is especially important when shelves are positioned against the outside walls of a building.

The archives should not extend beyond the edges of shelves into walkways, since they may get bumped or otherwise damaged. Instead, adequate oversized shelving should be provided so that large items can be stored on shelves without extending beyond the edge.

shelving essentials

Storage area requirements:

Once the records are appropriately packed, they need to be stored in the right location in your home. The area should be clean, free from dust and smoke, fairly dark with a stable or relatively consistent temperature and humidity level, not too dry or damp, not too hot or cold and well ventilated to inhibit mould growth. It should be a place where you yourself would be comfortable. Avoid damp basements, garages and hot attics and sheds. Storage areas for records should be physically separated from areas which pose a risk: e.g. kitchens, washrooms, electrical plants, overhead pipes and other exposed plumbing.

Temperature and humidity: The storage area should be a cool, dry place with little fluctuation in temperature and no exposure to water in any form. Ideal conditions would have a temperature of 15 - 21°C, and a low relative humidity of 50 – 65%. The lower the temperature, the longer your items will last since cooler temperatures slow the rate of chemical decay and reduce insect activity. Avoid very low relative humidity (below 15%) as this can cause brittleness. Acetate and colour negatives, slides and prints are vulnerable to fading and deterioration if stored at room temperature. Cold storage can slow deterioration, but it requires special packaging and preparation. Remember, damp causes mould and fungal growth, and heat makes paper brittle and dry. It can also lead to the fading of dyes, yellowing of paper, and shrinking and cracking of organic materials.

Light: Keep your records away from artificial light, direct sunlight and radiation. Store them in a dark, dry closet inside containers. Use ultraviolet (UV) filters on lights and windows in areas where you store or work on your archives. Light damage is irreversible, cumulative and permanent. Keep light levels between 50 - 100 lux (maximum of 600 lux). Monitor changes in appearance regularly. Watch for changes in colour due to light damage or yellowing of paper. Limit light exposure as much as possible and switch off the lights entirely when not in use, since they will fade writing and images.

Water: Keep items away from sources of leaks and floods, e.g. water pipes, windows, or roof leaks. In areas which are flood prone, place records above known flood levels. Always keep a carbon dioxide (CO2) hand fire extinguisher in your archival storage area, since CO2 does not have a detrimental effect on paper. The use of water to fight a fire will damage your archives even more.

Insects: Reduce the risk of damage from insects and rodents by storing items away from food and water. Don't use insecticides directly on your records and be careful with the use of sprays. The best way to deal with pests is to try and keep them out of the area through good housekeeping and using baits and mini strips to protect the area.

shelving types

The area where you store your family archives should be kept clean, free of dust and mess. This minimises the risk of bugs and pollution from the outside. A programme of systematic cleaning should be maintained to ensure clean and hygienic conditions for the storage of archival records.

Non-paper based materials such as videos, coins, medals, gramophone records and textiles require similar storage conditions as described above. Excessive heat and humidity, and exposure to insects and light are the main concerns for these types of media. Textiles and leather are susceptible to mould growth in humid conditions and are often at risks from insects. Wood cracks in dry conditions. Textiles fade in light. Video tapes are ruined by high temperatures. Metal corrodes in humid or wet conditions. Therefore, it is important to inspect your storage areas regularly to prevent damage and deal with any problems quickly. Inspect the inside of containers at least every 6 - 12 months.

The position of your storage area for your family papers is critical to their preservation. When you know and understand the threats, you have no excuse but to try and implement these precautionary measures to protect your archives.

6 Arrangement of your family archives

Your family archives can be more effectively used when they are accessible. If your archives are properly arranged and described in a finding aid, an inventory or any kind of structured list, the contents will be clear and it will be easy to find specific items.

The method of arrangement will vary from person to person. The arrangement and description of archives is founded in the core archival principle of provenance. This principle states that records have meaning within the contextual circumstances of their creation and contemporary use. An archival record unconnected to these circumstances is of little value to anyone. Archival arrangement must endeavour to give expression to the contextual environment from which archives emerge, a unique system of arrangement must be devised for each group of archives. The second fundamental principle of archives arrangement, namely the principle of original order, asserts that items in a group of archives should be kept in the original order in which they were created. 

There is no blueprint on how to arrange your archives. Each person must create an approach which they are comfortable with, and must adapt it to meet their own requirements.  The arrangement and description of archives is a professional discipline requiring imagination, flexibility and creativity. No two persons will arrange a particular archives group in precisely the same way, since there is scope for individual expression and initiative. 

The arrangement of archives is conducted in three stages: the rough sort, the detailed sort and the final sort. These three stages should not be considered as being strictly demarcated. 

The purpose of the first or rough sort is to divide the items into main groups or series. Begin by identifying and sorting your items into main series. Group them into general categories such as diaries, letters and photographs. You can decide what your categories will be. Be consistent, but accept that there might be overlapping between categories. See example A. 

part 6 Picture1

The detailed sort has a dual purpose: To place each item in the correct place within the particular series in the system, and to check the internal arrangement of each item. The detailed item by item, physical arrangement of the archives is a more refined type of sorting. This is where you work systematically through each main series to determine the sub-series and how these sub-series will be subdivided. For example, you can sort letters by date or by topic or by the name of the authors. It is a matter of constant refinement, where you go more and more into detail. At this stage you also check if there are missing items, check for any misplaced documents and the physical condition of the items. See example B. 

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In order to determine the main and sub-series, each individual item should be catalogued and dated. If you find it difficult to catalogue your items, the strip-method (or card method) can be applied. Each item is allocated a consecutive number which is written in pencil (the number can also be written on a strip of paper or an index card). The following information about the item will then be written on another strip of paper or index card: the number which corresponds to that specific item (e.g. 1); the title or description of the item (e.g. diary of Jan Els); the date(s) of the item (e.g. March 1970 – July 1981); and any other necessary information.    

Once all the records have been catalogued and provided with a number and corresponding card, the cards or strips should be arranged in groups (main groups or series and sub-series). Try to construct series and sub-series where possible. After you have sorted the cards and compiled an arrangement system on the basis of the sorted categories, you can start sorting the items according to the cards. Try to arrange the main series in order of relative importance and again, under each main series, arrange the sub-series and items according to relative importance. See example C. 

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The series should now be in the order in which they will eventually be described in the inventory. The purpose of the final sort is to determine whether the system of arrangement being followed is correct and whether each item has been correctly placed. See examples D and E. 

It is sometimes difficult to find the dates or to decide which date to use. Always use the date that the author provided. If the author did not give a date, use the dates of stamps or postmarks, etc. See example E. 

When you find duplicate items, place these in separate piles. If you decide to keep the duplicates, you can put them together with the original items or make provision for a separate series for duplicates. 

It is also important to make provision for main series and sub-series that can serve as ‘umbrella headings’ which can be subdivided or broken down further. These headings should be clearly defined so that overlapping and duplication are avoided. Therefore, headings must be precise and well thought out. A requirement during subdivision is that subjects on the same level should be of equal value and homogenous (in other words, mutually exclusive, so that they do not overlap).  See examples D and E. 

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There are many different methods to arrange your main and sub-series, since each collection is unique, i.e. form, organisation, place, person, item and subject. See example F. 

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The method that works most of the time is to arrange according to the type of document and then each of the main series can be subdivided however you feel best. The documents themselves will guide you towards a certain method. The quantity of archives also determines the degree of division that will be necessary. 

The description of the documents in the inventory reflects the arrangement of the archives. The headings, according to which the main series and sub-series are described, are extremely important and should be as short as possible. They should preferably consist of one word only. The nature of the contents of the series should be indicated, e.g. Diaries, Letters, etc. 

Remember to keep the main and sub-series as simple and clear as possible and be consistent. The arrangement of your personal family collection can be a way to tell a story about your life or the life of your family members.

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