Pass it On! It’s Preservation Week

Whether it’s the Declaration of Independence or a cherished family scrapbook, our treasures need help surviving the ravages of time. High temperatures, dampness, pests, mold – all these things can destroy historical documents surprisingly quickly. Luckily, there are a few simple steps you can take to help materials last longer. During Preservation Week, take a few minutes to think about simple things you can do to save your personal archives.

Move papers, photographs, and other keepsakes out of the basement or attic.

Norfolk State Prison Colony records, 1932. Box 66, Folder 14, Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Norfolk State Prison Colony records, 1932, Box 66, Folder 14, Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

It’s tempting to keep them out of the way, but materials can be damaged by the fluctuating temperatures and humidity of storage spaces, not to mention leaks and paper-eating pests like silverfish. Keeping your important items in a climate-controlled spot like a closet will greatly increase the chances that your documents will be around to pass down to the next generation. Otherwise, they might wind up looking like this poor report, part of the Howard Belding Gill papers. Although this document has been carefully conserved by the Burns Library’s conservator, you can see the evidence of decades of neglect that occurred when the records were stored in the basement of a prison before coming to the Burns Library. The discoloration is due to dampness that led to mold and ink bleeding, and the missing portions are the result of vermin eating the paper. Don’t let this happen to your piece of the historical record!

Bruce J. Browning theater scrapbook, 1904-1904, Theater Programs Collection, MS.2011.024, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Bruce J. Browning theater scrapbook, 1904-1904, Theater Programs Collection, MS.2011.024, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Photographs and scrapbooks. Photographs and scrapbooks have slightly different preservation needs than plain paper. Film prints like to be kept cool and dry, and out of the sun. If you have a much-loved family portrait that you would like to keep on view, consider having a copy made for display and keeping the original safely stored. Scrapbooks and photo albums are best stored in boxes and kept flat. If you like to scrapbook, choosing your materials carefully will ensure that your scrapbook will not degrade. And don’t forget the importance of labels! On the back of photos or on an album page, write in pencil who’s in the picture, and when and where it was taken. It’s easy to forget, but capturing this information now will make your images much more interesting in the decades to come. For more on the preservation and creation of scrapbooks and albums, be sure to catch this webinar on May 1 at 2 p.m. EST.

Think about your digital records, too. Chances are that nowadays you’re taking photos on your phone and digital camera. How will those files last into the future? Thinking about file formats and names and digital storage now will make saving these files later much easier. On April 29, the Congregational Library in Boston is offering a free workshop on preserving your photographs, both photographic prints and digital files. If you can’t make it to the workshop, this brochure can help you get started, and the Library of Congress’s Personal Digital Archiving page offers even more useful advice.

Ask an expert! If you’re not sure what to do to preserve your materials, there are many great resources out there to help you. You can submit any kind of preservation question to “Dear Donia,” and not only will you get an answer from a trained professional, but you’ll also be entered into a monthly raffle for a Document Preservation Kit. The National Archives and the Library of Congress both have excellent websites that give guidance on how to preserve your memories, and so does the American Library Association.

There are many small, simple, inexpensive things that you can do to help save the historical record – this webinar (April 29, 2 p.m. EST) introduces you to some easy steps to take. Whether you want to keep your materials in the family, or hope to one day donate them to an archives where scholars can use them for research, intervening now will ensure that your important records are preserved to pass on.

If you would like to see any of the archival collections in the Burns Library, mentioned above, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or

  • Adrienne Pruitt, Processing Archivist, John J. Burns Library.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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