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Working With Documents

 I've recently received permission from Diane Nichols at to  reproduce this. Diane told me: "Be my guest in reproducing the article.  Preserving  the documents is the most important thing." I agree 100%. So here it is.

              Practical Advice for Preserving Old Documents
                    By Diane Nichols,

 This article first appeared April 29, 1999 on the  PAALLEGH-L Rootsweb list. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

    Old documents are often rolled or folded and stuck in cedar chests and drawers for years before someone moves them to another drawer. They are aged in their shape and can break with handling. They are dry and need to be hydrated.

    Look around your home for a container with a tight fitting lid (not so tight fitting that the container needs to be tipped for a grip to take off the lid). I used a new galvanized garbage can, but a smaller one will do if all you have is a few letter size documents.

    Inside the (clean) container, place a heavy bowl with a flat bottom. Inside of THIS bowl, place a glass of water. Documents can be placed, several at a time, around outside of the bowl in the large container (outside of the water please). Make sure they are stable enough not to tip over to the water. Place the lid on the container and leave it alone for several hours. Needless to say, this whole thing should be out of the way of dogs, children and mothers who insist on constantly dusting! Put it in a spare room and close the door.

     After several hours, check the paper. Flex it to check how  well it unrolls, unfolds or just feels right. (It's like making dough - you learn the feel.) Some papers hydrate very quickly. I have already left a super thick post-Victorian wedding certificate in as long as 24 hours, but many papers hydrate in six.

    Purchase white blotter paper in an art supply store. Lay one sheet of blotter paper down on a table, and spread the documents flat as possible on the blotter paper. Check to make sure folded edges are unfolded, and torn edges close together. A set of stamp collector tweezers is perfect for this job and other steps to follow. Place another blotter paper on top. Weigh down this whole thing with heavy books (one use for an encyclopedia set).

    The blotter paper will absorb any excess moisture and I've never had a problem with mold. Leave the documents pressed for 12 to 24 hours. If they roll when uncovered, they either need to be pressed more or they possibly need hydrated more (although that's very rare).

    After uncovering the documents, you can begin repair. Odd smudges of dirt and pencil can be encouraged off with a Pink Pearl eraser. Don't use another kind. Other types of cleaning products should only be used by professionals, and the Pink Pearl should be used with extreme caution.

    A company called Light Impressions (more information about the company at the end of this article) sells a Filmoplast P repair tape (transparent). I always mend on the back of the document.

    The tape is pH neutral and doesn't yellow. It also can be removed and applied again during the taping process, which is a big help for those doing this for the first time. Don't use scotch tape--ever. Remove old tape if it won't destroy the document finish. It usually falls right off.

    The mylar top-loader envelopes are fine for storing smaller documents. I buy mine at one of the discount chains on sale (I sometimes pay $4 for 50). Archival companies charge a lot more. But many documents need bigger storage. From Light Impressions I also bought a pack of large size mylar sheets and a heavier mylar roll in a very large size. To use these, you need double-sided tape. Make sure you purchase Ph neutral tape.

    Cut two pieces of mylar about one inch larger than the document you have. Lay the now repaired and flat document in the center of one mylar piece. Unroll a length of double-sided tape and carefully place it from one corner of the document to another corner, leaving at least 1/4 inch of air space from the document to the tape. Repeat on each side, leaving an "air hole" of 1/8 inch or slightly larger at each corner. There will be a paper lining on the top side of the tape. Leave it in place for now.

    Lay another piece of mylar on top. Set a gentle weight on top of the stack, so that your sheets don't move as you work. With your tweezers, work one edge of paper lining off of one length of tape. Strip it off, and then press the two mylar pieces together on that side. Repeat, one side at a time. It can be tricky to do this without making a ripple, but the tape is stays removable for a long time. I use an old squeegee roller to set the tape after I check it. Trim outside edges, if needed. Store flat in an archival box or artist's portfolio for the best preservation.

    The first document is nerve-wracking to do, but it really is easy.

More information can be found at the following websites:

   Preserving your photographs and records -

   Global Archival Supply - Archival Supplies For Archivists & Genealogists - Main Page