How to Properly Store Antique Documents

Aging documents
Don't leave valuable or sentimental old documents lying around just anywhere.
Malcolm Piers/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The issue isn't whether you have important papers to pass down -- it's how many you have in the first place. From diplomas to letters and birth certificates to newspaper clippings, your family's history has probably been inked onto flattened wood pulp for generations. But the longer these papers sit around your house, the greater the chance that they'll decay or be damaged somehow. If you're like us, you've probably got a sneaking suspicion that a shoebox in the basement isn't the best way to store all your antique documents. So, what is? We decided to find out.


Hire Professional Guardians

It may sound silly, but an armed guard or two couldn't hurt when it comes to keeping your grandparents' marriage certificate safe, right? Consider renting a safe deposit box at a bank. Although the men in black probably are more concerned with guarding all that cash, you'll still get the same protection for your documents. Typically, the metal boxes aren't expensive (about $30 to $75 a year) and have the added bonus of being housed in a bank vault that's pretty unlikely to be damaged by a fire or burglars.


Store It in Plain Sight

Antique photos in sunlight
Though everyday frames may look nice, they aren't enough to keep your antique photos safe.
Andrew Bret Wallis/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Sometimes the safest place for a document you want to preserve is in clear view. At least the old "out of sight, out of mind" adage won't apply. If you decide, for example, to hang on your wall the weathered playbill of your great aunt's first -- and only -- theatre appearance, enlist the aid of a professional framer. And we're not talking that helpful young man in the local discount store's frame section, either. Ask around until you find a professional framer with experience prepping museum-quality documents for display. That way, he or she can use the tricks of the trade -- like special conservation glass for blocking ultraviolet light and acid-free backing -- to ensure your document's place in family history.


Remember Safety Is Elemental

Even with the archival-quality professional framing, your document or photograph can still be damaged based on where you display it. Framed items should be kept away from extreme elements, such as direct sunlight or high humidity. We learned that one the hard way after putting a series of historic photographs in the master bathroom (it seemed like a good idea at the time). A few steamy showers later, we discovered it was time for a safer haven. Extreme temperature changes aren't a good idea, either, so if you're going to put the document away, steer clear of attics without climate control and basements devoid of dehumidifiers.


Iron Out the Details

Antique photos
If you plan on looking at loose photos and handling them often, it's best to put them in a protective sleeve.
Andrew Bret Wallis/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Once you've taken care to keep your antique documents away from acid-ridden backing, sunlight and humidity, wrinkles are the biggest enemy. Bent edges and permanent creases devalue documents, even those with purely sentimental value. That said, a few simple actions can keep them from becoming even more damaged. If you have a large number of antique documents to store, such as a photographs, place them in a photo-safe box with sheets of acid-free paper between them. If you have photographs or documents that will be handled occasionally for viewing, store them individually in plastic sleeves or pockets made specifically for heirlooms. Really long documents, such as deeds, may be stored safely in cardboard cylinders.

And, you can always print digital copies of your keepsakes. That way, not only will you have an archive of the originals, but you can take off the kid gloves for a change.


Know Your DIY Don'ts

If you're the DIY type and have plenty of space to store your documents, you may want to archive them closer to home. Your best bet, unless you have a specially built room dedicated to storing such things, is a closet. The one in which you store out-of-season clothes is ideal because you aren't likely to accidentally damage the documents through daily contact. Plus, when you rotate your clothes for the season, you can make it a point to assess the documents for damage or deterioration. Keep in mind, however, that if you'll end up stacking sports equipment or last year's tax returns on top of your family heirlooms, a closet's really no better than anyplace else -- which defeats the purpose of protecting your precious documents in the first place.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Federal Citizen Information Center. "Keeping Family Household Records." (July 21, 2010)
  • Gallagher, Stephanie. "Who Needs a Safe-Deposit Box?" Kiplinger's Personal Finance. (July 21, 2010)
  • Heritage Photographs. "Preservation: How Do I Store My Old Family Photos." (July 22, 2010)
  • National Archives. "General Guidance." (July 21, 2010)