Friday, December 30, 2011

A year's end, time to preserve memories and history...

That time when a year ends and a new one starts. Many memories passed by and it's time to go through them and sort what's important and what's not, properly preserving what needs to be preserved. Hence the best and simplest thing you can do to preserve your memories and family history is to have a routine.
Yes, let's say end of the year, when you're (hopefully) at home taking some time off, make sure to dedicate some time to properly go through what's important (and not) and organize as needed. This is especially important if you're a photographer as you don't want your work to accumulate and you certainly want an efficient way to properly catalog and retrieve your work as needed. Of course if you did nothing important during the year and have nothing worth preserving then you can skip this whole document.

Why bother?

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes and this specially applies to your own personal history. Not properly knowing or preserving your family's history (or work) for future generations is nothing but been irresponsible. Now that been said, not everybody can have a climate control museum dedicated to the preservation of family (or work) photos and other important documents. Still there are some basic things that you can do so at least the next couple of generations can enjoy and inform themselves about their own family's history or enjoy the art works you have created.

About preservation...

Let's start with a clear idea of what conservation or preservation as it pertains to this topic is: The application of techniques or treatments that do not alter the item to be protected or conserved and which can be completely reversed. Light, heat, humidity, acids in papers, plastics, and adhesives, other objects, pollutants, and pests need to be avoided or kept under control. Keeping that in mind we have put together a list of easy things to do (or avoid) to help preserve such memories. Most important also included are sources for the required materials or more information to help you succeed.

Figure 1: The PrintFile company offers a vast array of preservation products to keep your valuables safe for years to come. Very important is that all of these are ACID free which is key for long lasting documents.

Things to AVOID:

  1. Acid - Well many say that it can set your mind free but as it pertains to this case it's the number one enemy. Acid or acidic compounds will deteriorate or completely destroy all printed materials. Unfortunately most of the things you're trying to preserve contain acidic chemicals within themselves hence the only thing you can do is keep such chemicals under control. Use acid free paper to print important documents and most important any storage medium must be acid free. Keep the surrounding environment under control, that's a proper temperature and humidity, thus slowing such chemical reactions that release acid.
  2. Extremes - Talking about extremes, that normally means either high (or low) temperature or humidity levels. NEVER store important documents in places such an attic or a basement as they normally are exposed to extremes. There's no one generic temperature and hummidity setting as different collectibles might require different such combinations, but a general recommendation for mixed item collections is a non-fluctuating relative humidity above 25% and below 65% and temperatures between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (lower if possible as that slows chemical reactions). So for starters let's say 45% humidity and 65 degrees Fahrenheit seems to be a good starting goal. Understanding that such might not be possible, try to keep your valuables as close to possible to those numbers.
  3. Insects and other living pests - This should be a no brainer, but if you keep storage areas clean, avoid hording, you'll keep pests from ruining your valuables. Most important, hard to see mold and mildew, love dark and humid places and the big problem with them is that they spread not only ruining your valuables but can hurt your health. Simplest thing to do is to keep the humidity low, specially using dehumidifiers (as simple as silica gel) where you store such valuables. Others suggest exposing valuables to UV light every now and then as it kills mold and mildew, especially if unseen. The problem is that UV light will also ruin some valuables too, hence tread carefully if you choose to use UV lights. For photographers a simple and safe use of UV light is with cameras and specialty lenses. If you have lenses that are stored and not used frequently, best thing you can do is sit them under an UV source to kill any mold they might have.
  4. Laminates - A bad favorite is lamination of documents. Even though it might seem that laminating documents helps to protect them it actually can do more harm with time. The problem is that such process violates our rule of preservation is that you can undo the process once it's done. Hence the original document has been altered after is has been laminated. The problems resides in that lamination may potentially damage a document due to high heat and pressure during application and as if that wasn't enough, the laminating materials themselves may contain harmful chemicals that might release document killing acids which contribute even more to the deterioration of the document.
  5. Plastics - One acronym you need to memorize: PVC or polyvinylchloride, which is commonly found in "store-bought” cheap binders, as the chemical name suggest it has a chloride in the formula and that results in the worst possible byproduct that could be released: hydrochloric acid (HCL). That's the number one killer of documents and unfortunately many cheap binders and albums sold are made of PVC. If you have those, get your documents out of there into "acid-free" binders and pages. Not all plastics are bad. Plastic enclosures are safe for documents ONLY if they are made of polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene.
  6. Mixing - One of the worst enemies of storing documents is the documents themselves. There are documents that will indeed release acids (especially old newspapers), hence avoid mixing documents together. If you must do so, then make sure to interleave them with acid-free paper to prevent acid migration from one document to another. Acid-free paper that is buffered will also counteract the formation of more acids in the future.
 Things to DO:

  1. Archive - The simplest thing you can do is at least have a file cabinet, properly divided with binders or folders, to temporarily archive documents while a more permanent and safe environment can be provided. If not for preservation, at least for organization of important forms, after all the only other sure thing than dead is taxes, and having your documents organized for that certainly will make it less painful. From my perspective archiving serves a simpler yet important task: organizing. That should be the first step with any such valuables: The classification and organization of such documents as that will help you in later determining the best way to proceed for permanent storage. So what do you do with your old negatives, slides and other documents? After you have all organized and classified you need to look to proper preservation media (remember acid free or neutral). These are some highly recommended products for each different type of use:
  2. Backups - I can't say this enough, back all your digital media or into digital media. It's amazing the number of people that have their photos and important documents in their computers. What's wrong with that? Well computers, actually their storage media, do have a limited life often measure in MTBF (mean time between failures). The hard disk in your computer stores the bits and bytes of information in magnetic media. Such media has a limited lifespan and it's sensitive to magnetic pulses and current spikes. Hence all it takes it's a good storm and a lightning close by and bye, bye to your memories. Storage units such as hard drives are cheap, hence you should have a backup of all your data stored in at least two different places that are not close by. For example if you have your photos in your computer, you should have a copy in an external drive which is stored at a different location than your computer, such as safe box. The important thing to remember here is the "don't put all the eggs in one basket" effect. Another important thing to concider is longetivity. Ironically it is optical media and how similar it is to photo film, that looks like the longest lasting alternative to storage. Remember that when you write an optical disk, you're literaly burning the data into it (changing the material permanently) hence you want to get the best quality possible such as "gold" or Professional level quality optical media. See our article on backing up files and the different available alternatives and an "Pro" level disk media vendor:
  3. Fireproofing - Nothing more scary that fire and losing all to such. Safest and simplest way to protect your memories is to have a SentrySafe fireproof safe box. These can not only wistand a major fire but protect their contents for more than an hour without any damage. Hence it's where you will put a backup hard drive, disks, video tapes and depending on the size, you might be able to even put your photo albums and other important documents. Check the following web site for information on safe boxes:
  4. Scan - Nothing safer than digitizing all important documents. A digital copy is often as close as it gets to the original and in some cases the only way such might be preserved. Scanners are extremely cheap these days (LED or LiDE type) and an easy way to go through important documents to not only protect them, but to share with friends and family. If you want to get it to another level, get a true optical scanner such as the Epson perfection family of scanners with Digital ICE software or Canon CanoScan series as shown here:
  5. Professional services - Finally if all of this is too complicated or you don't have the time or worst, mold and mildew have damaged some valuables, the best thing to do is to hire a professional to fix such. Depending on how precious such memories are, any cost incurred in preserving them will be insignificant to their historical or personal value to you. Hence don't be cheap, expend the money wisely and protect those memories. Some sample services:
  6. Self publishing - What better way to preserve your images and documents than publishing them as books. This is fairly easy to do these days and these are several businesses that specialize on this type of work:

All of this might seem like a lot of work to do and digest, hence let's go back to the original statement: Key word here is routine. Make it a year end event and it will become not only an easy thing to do, but a good way to go back and remember and share some good memories.

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