About us

A New Year’s Resolution: Preserve Your Family’s History

Date: January 1, 2011

Contact: Chrystal Carpenter


Photographs, letters, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings are commonly found in archival repositories such as Special Collections at the UA Libraries. Researchers of all types – from authors to genealogists – utilize these materials to understand, document, and tell a story of the past.  

It’s quite likely that you too have an archive in your home – a personal archive of your family’s history. The family photos that are lingering in the garage, letters stuffed in a shoe box and newspaper clippings taped into a scrapbook – these materials illustrate and document your family’s history and memories.

Just as we do in Special Collections, taking the proper steps to handle and care for these one-of-a-kind items now will ensure your family’s story can be shared for generations to come.

Perhaps you’ve made a few New Year’s resolutions? Consider adding one more: preserving your family’s history.

Two simple steps will prevent damage and deterioration of valuable family history: organizing your materials and properly storing them for safekeeping.

What does that mean for your photographs, documents and newspaper clippings? My recommendations are shared below.

A general rule of thumb when preserving photographs is that they are best preserved in a cool, dark and relatively dry environment. Store photographs at 68° F and a relative humidity of 30-40% such as a dark closet in an air-conditioned room. For loose photographs place in either a high quality acid free photo box or album. Avoid albums that use adhesives and stay away from pasting photographs on to backings. If possible, organize and document the photographs. Who is in the photograph? When and where was it taken? Is the photo associated with an event like a family reunion or holiday? The more context and information you provide now gives the item greater historical and informational value in the future. 

Although there are more preservation concerns with photographic materials due to the chemical processes involved, documents such as birth certificates, letters and diaries also need the proper storage conditions. A dry environment and non-acidic enclosures will help to ensure stability of paper-based materials. Placing documents in acid-free folders within acid-free boxes is ideal. If the materials are to be handled and viewed often another option is to sleeve the items in acid-free clear enclosures with three hole punch tabs, such as sheet protectors, and file them in notebooks in an order that makes sense to you.     

Newspaper clippings
Unlike most paper documents, the quality of newsprint was never intended to last for very long. Therefore, the paper is of poor quality and hard to preserve. If you have newspaper clippings the best solution is to photocopy or scan the items, making sure to include the date and title of the newspaper. If you want to preserve an entire newspaper a good way to do so is by surrounding the unfolded newspaper in an acid free enclosure and store it lying flat in a box. 

You may also want to consider digitizing your personal archives. Digitizing is a good way to share photographs and documents with other family members; it also minimizes the handling of the items. To ensure good quality scans, you’ll first want to research guidelines for scanning and preservation of digital objects. A digital scanner must have the ability to scan at 1200 dpi for smaller items and has a bit depth of 24-48 for color items. Digitization can be a timely endeavor so there are reproduction services available, such as at the Express Document Center at the UA Main Library, to assist. 

Following these simple steps will ensure your family’s the personal archive can be shared for generations to come. After all, your family’s history is its own special collection.

Chrystal Carpenter is the Manuscript and Congressional Archivist in Special Collections at the UA Libraries. She cares for hundreds of collections including those of political figures, Vaudeville and performing stars, notable personalities and well-known authors. If you have any questions about how best to preserve your personal archive, contact Chrystal at (520) 471-7342 or carpenterc@u.library.arizona.edu.