Tennessee State Library and Archives

Family Business: How You Find It & How You Keep It

(Image 34193) Dupuy Family Tree, 1861, Library Family Tree Collection Drawn by Mrs. M. J. Stovall of Memphis, Tennessee.
Introduction | How You Find It | How You Keep It



Organizing your family collections can seem overwhelming, but there are easy ways to break the work into manageable sections.

Step 1 - Gather your materials in one place.  Dig things out of the garage, attic, or dresser drawers and keep them together. Step 1 Image
Step 2 - Do an inventory.  There is no need to organize your items yet, but you need to know what you have, and what kinds of materials you will be dealing with.  List all of your photographs, scrapbooks, and papers.  The list will begin to suggest a method of organization that will work for you.  It will also help you to determine the number of folders and other conservation materials that you will need. Step 2 Image
Step 3 - Start in small sections and begin to organize.  The collection is your own, so choose a system that works for you, but try to keep it simple and consistent.  One suggestion is to separate items by type; photographs together, loose papers   together, etc.  Another possibility is to keep items related chronologically or by their association with a person, such as your great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother. Step 3 Image
Step 4 - As you progress and sort, you will find items that you may not want to keep.  It may be best not to throw them away immediately, but gather them in a separate box.  Occasionally, you may discover the significance of something that you initially felt was worthless. Step 4 Image
Step 5 - Begin a basic cleaning of your items and put them in folders.  Carefully label the folders in pencil in case corrections are needed later. Step 5 Image


The best protection for your books, papers, photographs, and prints is a “safe” environment.  Light, moisture, pollution, and fluctuations in temperature all affect the life of your family treasures.  The ideal storage condition for paper is 70 to 75 degrees F and 45 - 50% relative humidity, and for most photographs 68 degrees F and 30 - 40% relative humidity.  Negatives and color photographs should be stored at 30 to 40 degrees F and 30 - 40% relative humidity.  In a household setting, these archival ideals may be difficult to achieve, but you can greatly prolong the life of your collection by simply storing your items in a part of the house where you live.  The conditions that are comfortable for you are also much better for your collection than attics, garages, or basements. 

Water Damage Photo

Avoid storing your valuable collection near sources of heat or water.  Placing your items near a radiator, washing machine, or in this example, under a leaky water pipe, can cause permanent damage.

Light causes fading and other damage.  Keep books, paper, photographs and art (prints, watercolors, and other works on paper) out of direct sun or bright light of any kind.  Hallways or other rooms without windows are best.  Install and use shades and heavy curtains where you can’t avoid windows.  Ultra-Violet resistant glass can slow light damage to framed items, but fading can still occur.

Use museum-quality (fully acid-free) materials whenever possible.  Common cardboard boxes and most mats and other framing materials are highly acidic, and those acids will eventually migrate into your materials.


Most of your collection will be composed of organic materials which naturally break down over time.  Proper conservation is necessary to postpone that deterioration.  Light, temperature fluctuations, and humidity are not the only enemies.  There are living organisms which do not share your respect for the past and simply regard your family collection as food.

Water Damage Photo


Mold and mildew are essentially two different names for the same thing.  Mold is a simple organism which lacks the ability to photosynthesize and uses enzymes to digest nutrients from organic materials.  Mold and mold spores are all around us and are a vital part of the Earth’s ecosystem.  There are well over 300,000 kinds of mold, and most do not cause a problem until they begin to attack the organic materials in your collection or worse- YOU.

The two most common “problem” molds found in collections are the Ascomycetes and Fungi Imperfecti.  Between these two kinds there are more than 46,000 species, many of which are disease causing.  Molds not only damage and stain historic paper and books but also can enter the warm, moist environment of your lungs and lead to serious and sometimes fatal respiratory problems and immune reactions. 


Insect Damage Photo

Bookworms are not as cute and studious as the cartoonists make them appear.  In reality, there is no specific “bookworm” as the term is used to describe the larvae of almost any common beetle which bores through wood and paper.  Book-borers are rarely really found except in extremely poorly kept collections.  

Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina) are small wingless insects whose main diet consists of carbohydrates (sugars and starches).  They will eat mold, glues, paper, and fabrics to extract the starch.  Silverfish thrive in a warm, moist environment and are tenacious enough to survive for nearly a year with no food at all.

Cockroaches are one of the oldest groups of insects on our planet.    There are over 50 species commonly found in the United States, but   their habits are very similar.  An efficient scavenger, the cockroach
will eat anything organic.

Rodent Damage Photo


Mice and rats enjoy the cellulose and starches in books and paper as well as the proteins found in glues, and in fact, will eat almost any form of organic material.  Prolific breeders, mice can find in your home a relatively predator-free environment with a smorgasbord of food sources.  Aside from the obvious damage they do while munching your treasures, rodents leave feces which can attract parasitic molds and insects.

The common elements that attract all of these pests to your collection are temperature and humidity.  Keeping your collection cool and dry is vital, and you should remain vigilant and inspect your items regularly for evidence of damage.  If your collection has mold, contact a professional conservator for advice.  Chemical means can often cause more damage than the mold itself, so home remedies are not recommended.  Insects and rodents can usually be kept at bay by good housekeeping and a low-moisture environment.


Paper Conservation Image


Letters, clippings, and other documents that you want to preserve should be stored unfolded in buffered folders.  Paper fibers are their weakest at folds, so folding and unfolding breaks envelopes and can cause damage as items are removed and replaced.  Buffered folders are readily available at archival supply stores and are the best way to keep your documents flat and to reduce their acidity.  Folders and boxes are available for oversized items as well, and it is better to get a folder to fit your item, than to force the item into a too-small folder.

Staples and Paperclips

Paper Conservation Image

It is usually a good idea to remove metal fasteners from your paper.  Staples and paperclips are common ways to fasten documents, but they can rust over time.  Metal fasters also increase the risk of tearing paper.  Use caution removing these fasteners - particularly if your paper is brittle or weak.  Do not use a common staple-puller!  Instead, slide a thin piece of stiff plastic (e.g. polyester, polypropylene) under the fastener on both sides of the document.  Slide the paperclip off the plastic, or use a pair of tweezers or a thin knife to bend the edges of the staple up and pry it out.  The plastic will protect the paper from abrasion and your tools.

Adhesive tape

Adhesive tapes such as Scotch tape are okay for temporary uses (such as Christmas wrapping paper), but are a disaster for long-term preservation of paper documents.  The tape is stronger than the paper, which can further damage your document, the adhesive generally stays moist which attracts insects, and the adhesive can also be acidic which can stain your paper.  Worst of all, adhesive tape is irreversible.  Even those brands of tape which claim to be “archival” can only rarely be removed and then with great cost and effort. 


Book Restoration Image

Books are challenging and expensive to restore, so it’s best to keep them in good condition.  Books are a combination of materials:  paper, glue, cardboard, fabric, and leather.  Each of these materials can become food for insects and mold, so a cool, dry environment and good housekeeping are vital.

Handling your fragile books properly can prolong their life considerably.  Pages and spines become brittle and weaken over time, so here are some tips to avoid damage:

  • Never grasp the top of the spine of a book when taking it off of a shelf.  Instead, push the books on either side back and grasp the book you want by the covers
  • Cradle the book in your hand as you open it.  Always support the spine
  • Shelve books upright with books of similar size on either side
  • Store large or heavy books lying flat
  • Never use tape to repair pages or covers
  • Dust and inspect your books regularly to prevent insect infestation.


Almost every family used photographs to document their lives, and those fragile images can be the most treasured items in your collection.  Although types of photographs and cameras have changed over the years, basic care of most photographs is not difficult and simply requires common sense.


  • Keep your photographs organized and store them in a cool, dry, and stable area of your house where you live. 
  • Loose photographs should be put in proper enclosures such as a folder or paper sleeve.  Write down the identifying information on the outside of the sleeve so that you can minimize handling. 
  • Use photo corners to attach photographs to acid free and lignon free album pages.
Photo Handling Image


  • Try to avoid touching the emulsion side of a photograph.  Always handle photographs by holding them at the edges or back.
  • If you need to write identifying information on the photograph itself, do it lightly with a soft pencil and only on the back near the upper or lower edge.
  • Never do anything to a photograph that you can’t undo!  Using tape or glue to repair or mount a photograph will only cause damage.  Do not use pens or glue-on labels.


Photo Display Image

Light creates photographs, but light also can also destroy them.  Exposing any photograph to light for a prolonged time can cause fading.  There are two techniques you can use to display your family images.

  • If you are framing your original image, use only acid free and lignon free matting.  Never display a photograph where it will receive direct sunlight, but chose a low-light area like an inside hallway instead.  Special glass which resists ultraviolet light is available from most framing stores, but remember that it does not completely eliminate light damage.


Consider scanning your original image, and displaying a print of the scan.  Scanning technology has improved, and a new print can be made inexpensively which can hardly be told from the original.  Saving a digital copy means that your original will only be exposed to light once, and you can properly protect that image while displaying the print.  The prints can be replaced but your original can not!


If you have questions about preserving your family collections, help is certainly available. 


Preservation resources at the Tennessee State Library and Archives

If you have specific questions which are not covered in this exhibit or in TSLA’s preservation hand-out, our Preservation Services staff may be able to help you either over the telephone or by e-mail.

TSLA can not do conservation or restoration of your items for you, but we can advise you on proper general techniques, or assist you to find a professional conservator in your area.

NOTE:  Appraisal and authentication of items or collections are not services that TSLA can offer.  If you decide that you need such services, we recommend that you locate a certified appraiser who specializes in historical books, papers, or photographs.  Information on appraisers is available on the web.

Preservation resources on the web

There is a large amount of preservation information available on the web, some of which is excellent, and some of which is not.  We recommend that you pay close attention to the source of the information.  Information from certified conservators or professional archival institutions is more likely to be up to date and accurate.


For more information go to http://www.tennessee.gov/tsla/preservation/PreservingFamilyColl.htm.