In honor of Archives Week I wanted to give a nod to archivists, to the makers of archival materials (the supplies for proper storage), and to the important institutions like libraries and historical societies that save millions of linear feet of materials for our collective benefit. (To understand some of the work archivists make possible, you can take a trip to the blog of the University of Pennsylvania Special Collections staff, which has little stories about the different collections in their archive.)
Most people don't know what archival standards are, and when they see the price difference between a manila folder and an archival quality folder, manila often wins out. But archival is the way to go if you are serious about trying to make things last... the photos, the letters, the journals, and all the rest.
There is an enormous amount of information on the internet about best storage practices. The New York Times had a great three-part series about the subject (you can read it here.) The professional association for archivists is the Society of American Archivists, chock full of useful information, and both public and private libraries often have resources on the subject.
But if you need some quick pro tips, here you go:
Newspapers: People love to save newspaper clippings. Unfortunately, even with the best archiving techniques, they will yellow and fritter away eventually. The best thing you can do is scan the clipping or photocopy it onto acid-free paper.
Tape, adhesives and staples are not your friend: These materials all degrade and can damage your documents. Tape looses its stickiness and alters what it was stuck to, glues and adhesives deteriorate (except in those photo albums where they can permanently glue photos in place), and staples rust.
Water and humidity: The worst case scenario is an actual leak or flood that destroys materials in an instant. Humidity takes longer but has the same effect. Store your materials in a dry and climate controlled part of your house. Closets are ok as long as pipes don't run through them.
Scanning: Just bite the bullet and learn to scan. It's not hard once you know how, it's just really boring! So just chip away at the project. Scan a small number every week. Put on some music, pretend it's fun -- whatever it takes! Like everything else it adds up and you'll be thrilled you did it when you can email siblings and grandchildren all the images that have spent the last fifty years in a closet.
Back-up your scans: Unfortunately, scanning isn't enough. Wherever you saved your scans, make sure it gets backed up -- either to a cloud service like Dropbox, or to external storage devices.
Good luck with your project, and if you have any questions about how to tackle your family history project, I'd love to hear from you!