The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
What should I do with all this stuff?!?
Even though the world is becoming increasingly more electronic, many of us still have an abundance of things not created or saved in digital format. Whether it's old letters, original architectural drawings from the house your grandfather built, books, photographs, or home movies on Super 8, figuring out how to store these things can be difficult.
Here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives we are fortunate enough to have space and proper storage conditions to keep the Institution's materials safe and sound. We have an on-site collections storage area that has temperature and humidity controls as well as more storage elsewhere. But most people don't have this luxury in their private homes.
At home, storage space is often an issue of constant concern. Storing items that you want to keep, but don’t use or look at every day, can be a challenge, especially if your home is already stuffed with the things that you use on a regular basis. The most frequently designated storage spaces tend to be attics or basements, but they are sometimes the worst places to use. The environments of these often-unfinished areas can be extremely harmful to your family treasures because of fluctuations in temperature and humidity, water leaking in from the outside or from faulty washing machines or heat pumps, pests, or just the general dirt and dust that can accumulate in these spaces. The best environment for storing your personal collections at home will be in a relatively cool and dry place where temperature and humidity levels remain fairly constant and that are free from potential water hazards.
Another issue is proper housing of these items. Putting your treasured papers, photos and objects in the appropriate containers will protect them from dust and damage due to light exposure. Think about using acid free boxes (with lids) and folders. Keep paper items unfolded to avoid deterioration along the fold lines. It is a good idea to remove attachments, such as paper clips, binder clips, and rubber bands, because these will rust and rot over time. Also, consider digitizing photographs, films, and videos.
There are some good resources online for learning how to take care of your personal collections. Check these out for more detailed information:
Northeast Document Conservation Center - Hints for Preserving Family Collections
The Library of Congress - Preparing, Protecting, Preserving Family Treasures
The National Archives - Preserving Family Papers
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works - Caring for Your Treasures
It may take a little time and effort to get your personal collections organized and safely housed, but once you do your treasures will be better preserved for future generations.