How to Preserve Your Genealogical Treasures

Time is going to take its toll on every genealogical artifact in your possession — whether it's a photograph or an original document. The longer you want your records and pictures to last, the better care you need to take of them now.

Store vital records under the right conditions

Place birth certificates, marriage licenses, and other records between sheets of acid-free paper in albums. Keep these albums in a dark, dry, and temperature-consistent place: ideally, a place that is 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, with a relative humidity of less than 50 percent.

You may consider placing these albums in a steel file cabinet (but make sure it's rust-free). Also, try to avoid using ink, staples, paper clips, glue, and tape around your documents (unless you use archival products designed for document repair).

For your precious documents (original birth certificates and family papers), rent a safety-deposit box or find another form of secure off-site storage. One of the best ways to ensure the success of your preservation efforts is to make electronic copies of your documents using a scanner, and then keep disk backups at a fire-safe, off-site location (again, a safety-deposit box is a good choice).

Protect your photographs

Fight the urge to put all your photos of every ancestor on display because light can damage them over time. A better option is to scan the photographs and make copies or printouts to hang on the wall. Keep your most-prized pictures in a dark, dry, and temperature-consistent place.

If you use a photo album for storage, make sure that it has acid-free paper or chemically safe plastic pockets, and that you affix the pictures to the pages using a safe adhesive. Other storage options include acid-free storage boxes and steel file cabinets. Store the photographs in a place that stays around 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, with a relative humidity of less than 50 percent.

Avoid prolonged exposure of photographs to direct sunlight and fluorescent lights. And, by all means, have negatives made of those rare family photos and store them in clearly marked, acid-free envelopes (the kind without gumming or glue).

You can preserve photographs a couple of other ways. First, you can convert photographs from an earlier time to a newer and safer kind of film. A local photograph shop that specializes in preservation can do this for you.

Because color photographs fade more quickly than their black-and-white counterparts, you may want to make black-and-white negatives of your color photographs. As with documents, you can preserve your photographs electronically by scanning them into your computer or by having a photo CD made by your photographic developer.

Of course, you need to store digital photos on a computer or on the camera's memory card. You should still remember to make backup copies and then store the media in a recommended manner.

An electronic version of an old photograph isn't a real substitute for an original. Don't throw away the photos you scan (but you already knew that).

Here are a few websites that provide more detailed tips on preserving your family treasures:

It's possible that some of your family videos and photos exist on film or slides. For information on preserving old 8 mm, 16 mm, and 35 mm films or slides, check out this article from The New York Times: "Tips on Archiving Family History, Part 2."

And when you're looking for some of the chemically safe archival materials (such as albums, paper, boxes, and adhesives), head on over to

Even though you want to preserve everything to the best of your ability, don't be afraid to pull out your albums to show visiting relatives and friends. On the other hand, don't be embarrassed to ask these guests to use caution when looking through your albums.

Depending on the age and rarity of some of your documents, you may even want to ask guests to wear latex gloves when handling the albums so that the oil from their hands doesn't get on your treasures. Upon realizing how important these items are to you, most guests won't mind using caution.

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