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Preserving your own archive

Many people are interested in preserving their own family collection for future generations.

Family documents typically include birth and marriage certificates, letters, greeting cards, diaries, and journals. Family photographic collections can include historic studio portraits, more modern film photos, and digital images.

  • Handy hints for preserving your own family collection

    Always have clean hands when working with records or photographs.

    • Use a pencil, not a pen when working around records or annotating records.
    • Use 'copy safe' document sleeves, zip lock sandwich bags, or oven bags. These and other products marked PP (polypropylene), PE, LDPE or HDPE (polyethylene, low or high density) or PET (polyethylene terephthalate or polyester) are suitable.
    • Torn items should be kept together by placing all the pieces in a plastic sleeve. These can then be photocopied or scanned as a reference copy.
    • Keep your records and photographs in a protective box to stop dust, light, and small amounts of water getting on them.
    • Keep your records and photographs in a cool, dry location.
    • Check your records and photographs regularly for insect or mould attack.


    • Don’t eat or drink around your records and photographs.
    • Don’t use sticky tape to repair torn records and photographs. 
    • Don’t store photographs or documents in self-adhesive ('magnetic') albums.
    • Don’t use PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic; this common type has a very typical, plastic smell, and a slightly greasy feel to the surface.
    • Don’t expose your records and photographs to long periods of bright light; this can fade the ink and yellow the paper.
    • Don’t store your records and photographs near a water source; like the laundry or a leaky window.)
    • Don’t store your records and photographs on the floor in case of a flood.
  • Storage for your home archive

    Storing your personal items can be done effectively at home if you follow some basic steps.

    Items should be kept in cool, dry, dark conditions. The ideal temperature for storing paper based items is around 20 degress celsius with 50 per cent relative humidity.

    Paper based items should be housed in archival quality storage containers. These can be purchased from specialist archival suppliers, but suitable less expensive alternatives can also be used.

    Below are some suggestions for a range of storage options:


    • Zip lock sandwich bags.
    • Oven bags.
    • 'Copy safe' document sleeves.
    • Expanding document file.
    • Ring binder with a cardboard cover.
    • Acid-free pocket style photo album.
    • Sturdy cardboard box with a lid.

    More expensive

    • Archival quality photocopy paper for inserts and interleaving.
    • Plastic 'display books.'
    • Polypropylene expanding document file (may have 'PP' and recycling number 5 stamped on it.)
    • Polypropylene ring binder (may have 'PP' and recycling number 5 stamped on it.)
    • Sturdy plastic crate with a lid.


    • Acid-free and photo-safe folders and wallets.
    • Acid-free and photo-safe storage boxes in cardboard or polypropylene.
    • Acid-free and photo-safe albums in cardboard or polypropylene suitable for documents, photographs and negatives and slides.
    • Polyester ('Mylar' or 'Melinex') document sleeve.

    Storage environment

    The area you use to store you records should be cool and dry. The cooler the better, however, cold temperatures often mean damp conditions, which need to be avoided. High temperature and moisture levels will cause documents to deteriorate rapidly. The ideal temperature for paper storage is around 20 degress celsius with 50 per cent relative humidity. Avoid storing documents in the attic, the shed, or under the house. Use an area inside the house that stays as cool as possible but doesn’t get damp and generate mildew. A space with no external walls is best – like a hall closet or linen cupboard.

    The advantage of this kind of space is that changes in temperature and humidity are less dramatic – the surrounding rooms act as a buffer, smoothing out the highs and lows in the outer rooms. Of course, these kinds of cool, quiet places are also where insects like to live. If you use these spaces you should check every few months to be sure silverfish or other insects haven’t moved into your collection. Silverfish will eat the paper and any starch based adhesives that might be on your records. Instead of using moth balls or insect strips, store your collection in something that insects can’t get into like a box with a tight fitting lid, or zip lock plastic bags.

    'Acid-free' does not necessarily mean 'safe for photographs'. Photographs have different requirements to paper, so although acid-free materials are a good place to start they may not be the best thing you can buy. Papers and plastics that are proven safe for photographs can be purchased from reputable suppliers of archival materials. However, they can be expensive. More affordable alternatives include:

    • Clear plastic document sleeves available from stationary shops or newsagents.
    • Oven bags, and zip lock sandwich bags from the supermarket are excellent alternatives.
    • Food grade plastic containers also make good storage boxes because they seal tightly enough to keep insects and water out.
  • Duplication

    Duplicating documents is easy and very effective. If your photographs are becoming fragile, or you want to share your images among your family, it is a good idea to have the most important ones duplicated. This can mean having new photographs taken of the image and printed on photographic paper, or scanned and printed through a computer.

    A simple photocopy will allow you to access the information on your fragile records without over handling the originals. Once a copy has been made, the original can sit safely in storage while your refer to the copy. Copies can also be sent to other family members for their records. It is a good idea to make several copies at one time to avoid having to handle fragile records repeatedly. Black and white copies are the most stable in the long term. Colour copies are less stable because the inks can fade.

    Scanning documents electronically and sorting them on computers or CDs/DVDs is becoming more and more popular and is another way of accessing information while protecting the original. Be careful as electronic technology rapidly becomes obsolete and the long-term stability of the CD materials is not yet known. You may need to transfer the files to updated storage media at intervals.

    You may also choose to scan the images on a computer. Many modern computer programs will help you correct any colour change and even electronically remove tears and stains. Images can be saved as files on your computer, printed out, or burnt onto a CD or DVD for storage and distribution. You may need to transfer the files to updated storage media at intervals.

  • Document preservation

    Any document that you have in your collection has two components – the paper and the printed information. 


    A lot of the paper now produced in Australia is of quite good quality with a long life expectancy. The printing on the page will usually be in either an ink or toner.

    Documents produced on a modern photocopier, on modern photocopy paper, should last hundreds of years if stored correctly. One type of document that is not at all stable is the thermal fax. The images on these papers do not last more than a few years even in good storage conditions. The image will start to change from black to brown and will eventually fade to the point where it will be unreadable. Any document on thermal fax paper should be photocopied immediately, before the image starts to fade.


    There is a huge variety of inks; from very stable oil-based printing inks, to very unstable, water-based felt-tip inks.

    A very common ink found on documents from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is iron gall ink. This ink is a dark brown/black colour and although very easy to write with, it is so acidic that over time it burns the paper fibres. In extreme cases the paper can crumble away where the writing is, leaving a network of holes in a now very fragile document.

    Inks made from carbon black (from charcoal or soot) are the most stable. They do not fade or change colour, or rub off or damage the paper. These inks are still available in jars to use with a fountain pen, but you can also buy them in a ready-made pen. Black photocopy toner is generally quite stable. The least stable inks are cheap dye based inks which fade and/or change colour in light, bleed through the paper and run badly when accidentally exposed to liquids. Some fibre tipped pens and stamp pads use inks like these.


    Fragile papers need very careful handling. If handled incorrectly creases can turn into tears, tears can be extended, dog-eared corners can become separated, and vital information can be lost in the process. The basic rules for handling fragile material are:

    • No food or drink near your records.
    • Have clean, dry hands with no lotions or creams on them.
    • Wear cotton or surgical gloves if you like, but it is often difficult to pick up torn, fragile items with gloved fingers.
    • Use a soft pencil (2B), not pen, to make notes or annotate records.
    • Photocopy documents that are going to get a lot of use, and use this reference copy instead of the original.
    • Put fragile material into plastic sleeves to provide support while still being able to view the item. A sheet of acid free photocopy paper can be inserted in the sleeve to provide extra support.
    • Avoid using metal fasteners like staples and paper clips – in time these will rust and stain the paper. Plastic paper clips are available, or you can put multiple page items in a single plastic sleeve to keep them together. If you only have metal paperclips, you can put a slip of paper between the clip and your documents to protect them from potential rust stains.
    • Oversized, fragile material (like maps or charts) should be carried on a piece of board slightly larger than the item to avoid weak areas moving around while the item is used.
    • Avoid exposing your objects to strong light for extended periods of time.

    Keep in mind that your records may well be irreplaceable and as such deserve as much care as you can give them. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather your collection. Keeping them in good condition will save you, or future generations, the trouble of gathering them all over again.

  • Photographic preservation

    Photographs are something we all take for granted in our homes, until 20 years pass and we start to notice them fading, changing colour or getting buckled and torn. This information sheet will help you extend the life of your photographs. Photographs are more complicated than most people realise.

    Colour prints can have six or seven types of dyes and filters suspended in layers of emulsion. Black and white photographs have minutely divided grains of silver, suspended in a base. Photographs made prior to the 1970s are on good quality paper, which means that the paper itself doesn’t contribute to the deterioration of photographs. However, they are susceptible to physical damage like tears and insect attack.

    Modern colour and black and white prints are produced on ‘resin coated’ paper. This means that the paper has a very thin layer of polyethylene plastic on either side of it. The coating serves to speed up processing time, and it also makes the prints stronger, and less prone to severe physical damage.

    Fading or discolouration of images is due to the chemical break down of the image–forming materials. With black and white images the microscopic grains of silver start to oxidise and corrode like the tarnishing of jewellery or cutlery. This changes the shape of the silver grains causing them to reflect light differently. In colour materials, the dye molecules can split and become colourless. When one of three basic dyes begins to fade, the print appears to have changed colour, often to orange tones. This is because the blue dye layer usually deteriorates first, taking all the blue tones out of the image.

    How to care for photographs

    It is the image–forming materials which are the most susceptible to damage during the life of photographs. Fingerprints and poor storage introduce chemicals which will speed up any deterioration. The paper supports can tear and crease, emulsions can stain, and fragile emulsions can be removed from the paper if wiped or rubbed.

    When handling photographs you should

    • Have clean dry hands (with no creams or lotions on them.)
    • Wear cotton or latex-free disposable gloves if you like, but it is often difficult to pick up individual items with gloved fingers.
    • Handle the prints by the edge, to avoid touching the image layer.
    • Avoid handling fragile areas of the print, like dog-eared corners or tears.
    • If the item is large and fragile (like a group portrait which has been rolled and squashed), support it on a piece of card larger than the item and handle the card, not the item.
    • Store photos in plastic sleeves and leave them in the sleeves while you are viewing them.
    • Avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight - high levels of ultraviolet radiation in sunlight fade photographs very rapidly.

    If you want to write on a photograph use a soft graphite pencil and write on the back of the print. A slightly blunt 2B pencil from your local newsagent is perfect. Place the prints face down on a firm surface and write gently to avoid pushing indentations into the print. Pencil won’t write on resin coated papers, so you will need to find a pen with a black pigment based ink – these inks are the most permanent.

    If you have a photograph which is torn, don’t be tempted to repair it with sticky tape. The tape will go yellow with age, stain the image, and eventually fall off leaving you with a photo which is both stained and torn. Instead, put the photograph into a small plastic sleeve to keep all the pieces together. If you can, try and get the image copied so it isn’t being handled too much.

Last updated: 27 May 2022