February 25, 2010

Stealing History: How to Preserve Old Documents

This post is a little late but I wanted to mention it. The Wisconsin Historical Society is trying to retrieve artifacts that were stolen by an ex-curator. They had a segment on Antiques Roadshow in an attempt to retrieve some of the 300 stolen Native American artifacts. They have only recovered about 33 of the stolen artifacts. There has been an increase of thefts of museum artifacts in recent years. I believe a lot of it has to do with the ease of auctioning off artifacts on Ebay. You can watch the 2 minute segment here.

History should be on display for everyone. There's nothing worse for researchers than when you are fact-checking and the article in question comes up "lost." It brings up a lot of questions and makes the source a lot less credible. Did the source ever really exist? Was the interpretation of the article correct? In the digital age, you would think that it would be easy to digitize museum collections, but most museums have tons and tons of artifacts. The Library of Congress receives 22,000 items every working day, but only keeps 10,000; which is still an awesome amount. The National Archives have over 7 million maps alone. A list of stolen documents from the National Archives can be found here. That list only includes well known items. Imagine all of the items that were not so popular?

Most artifacts recovered are found by researchers who have studied the artifacts in question. A really great story about two brothers who recovered stolen Civil War documents off of Ebay can be read here. It is great owning a piece of history, but it would be even better if they were preserved and available to everyone. I always urge everyone who has historical objects or documents to make them available online. This helps everyone get a more complete understanding of history as well as preserves your items for future generations. Most people do not have the money or knowledge to preserve artifacts and many items are damaged or ruined by accidents around the house. Wouldn't you know that a shelf just collapsed off of my bookshelf as I wrote this post?( There was nothing antique on it. :D)       

How to Preserve Old Documents

To Reproduce Your Document:

Wash your Hands: The oil on your hands will do a lot of damage to your documents. So make sure you clean them every time you touch your document. 
Never Display an Original Document: I know I said to let everyone admire your documents but light discolors documents, ultimately ruining them. Framing documents can  rub off ink or pencil by static electricity in the glass of the frame. Always make a copy and display the copy. Most people will not be able to tell that it is a copy anyway.(Fun Fact: Many museums display replicas to protect the originals. Some museums even have multiples of a particular object which they rotate so no one multiple fades too much from the light.)
Decide on the best way to make a copy: Photocopies are good and you have the added advantage of being able to resize the document or use contrast options to make the document more legible. Some documents are too fragile to photocopy, it is easiest to photograph these. Most digital cameras these days create very high quality images. You will most likely be able to read the document clearly. 

Reproductions are good because you can display them or give family and friends a copy. It will also prevent everyday damage (such as the bookshelf incident.) Always make reproduction.

To Preserve Your Document:

Wash Your Hands: Make sure you wash your hands and that they are completely dry before touching your document.
Clean the Document Up: Carefully dust off dirt and dust. If there are staples or paperclips, remove them.  Try not to dust off your document by blowing, you could get saliva on it. Try using a clean cotton cloth, use it very gently. Unfold the document if it is folded, even if it was given to your folded, such as a letter. The fold weakens the paper and your document will rip along the fold line. The dog-eared pages in books are the first part to fall off.
Sandwich your document: Use two pieces of acid-free paper. The paper can be bought at office supply stores and normally is not much more than $4.00 for a pack of 500 sheets. Lay one sheet on your work surface. Then place the document flat on it. Make sure no part is folded. Place another piece of paper on top.
Place in a Folder and Envelope: It seems like overkill but the folder will keep the document flat and the envelope (those plain yellow mailing ones will do,) helps keep bugs out. If your folder is too flimsy, also put the "document sandwich" on a piece of cardboard before putting it into the folder. It helps to tape off the open end of the envelope.
Find a place to store it: Wherever you decide to store it, make sure the envelope lays flat. The best places are cool, dry and dark. Finding a box your document can lay in will offer more protection. Good places to store your document are, drawers (preferably locked,) closet shelves, and the tops of bookshelves, assuming you put them in a box and keep dust off of them.

The documents I was using in the photos above are clippings from 1880. They look so good for being 130 years old! They are very beautiful etchings with calenders on the back. I found them inside of one of my antique books being used as bookmarks.

The book at the top is a Bible from my shelf. I think it is in Czech or Slovene but I really can't be sure. It is neat because there is a list of names handwritten in the back. Books take more effort to preserve. Perhaps I'll make a post on that later.


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