Advice from a pro on how to keep your keepsakes

Hilary Seo

Hilary Seo

Keepsakes stowed in shoeboxes, plastic bags and old photo albums won't keep all that long, according to Hilary Seo.  She ought to know. As head of preservation for university libraries, Seo oversees the longterm upkeep of books, journals, art and special collections pieces that range from 19th century letter sweaters to bovine watering bowls. Below, Seo tells the rest of us how we can take better care of those old Yellowstone snapshots, grandma's quilt and other family treasures.

First things first: Microclimates (aka boxes)

Microclimates are good for everything. For household purposes, a microclimate is a box that's sized just right for your treasure. It's small enough so nothing rattles around and big enough not to pinch. That box does a little preservation magic. It buffers the object inside from rapid temperature and humidity fluctuations. Fast fluctuations accelerate aging and deterioration of paper, leather, textiles, all kinds of materials and also cause physical distortion of objects.

We're not talking shoeboxes here

If you try to create a microclimate with a shoebox or other ordinary kinds of cardboard, you're setting up a hazardous environment for your treasure. Cardboard boxes are made of wood pulp, and acids in the wood will burn and discolor textiles and paper. To do that microclimate right, you'll need an acid-free and lignin-free box. (Lignin is what causes the day-old newspaper in the driveway to yellow.) You can buy such boxes, custom-sized, online. Google "archival products" or "microclimates."

Plastic containers also can create effective microclimates for treasures. Use polypropylene or polyethylene plastics. Avoid polyvinyl chloride plastics. Most household containers are made with polyethylene.

Photos: Don't do anything you can't undo

Don't laminate, tape, glue, write on or do anything else to a photo that can't be undone. Remove photos from old albums if you can; most aren't acid-free, and some use damaging plastics and adhesives. It's best to store your print photos in polyester sleeves. Make sure the sleeves are polyvinyl chloride-free. PVC will break down the emulsion. Here are a few other photo tips:

  • No pens, markers: Documentation is good, but it's better to put notes on photo sleeves rather than photos. If you must write on photos, record on the back edges with a soft-lead pencil. Markers eventually will bleed through and ballpoints will emboss.
  • Color fade: Old photos that are changing colors should be scanned. Actually, any old photos should be scanned, as colors will continue to shift and fade over time. Scan at 600 dpi and save in the TIF (Tagged Image File) format.
  • Printing: For the most stable photo prints, use quality photo paper and printers with proprietary inks.
  • Digital storage: CDs and DVDs aren't built for the long haul, so don't store photos on them. Keep photos on external hard drives, on an online photo site or elsewhere in the cloud. (If you have images in the TIF format, store them that way.)
  • Backups: Create backups and store in different places. Keep one of the storage drives pristine; load photos onto this “dark” storage device, such as an external drive, and leave it alone. Use your hard drive to store copies you want to access and manipulate, and use other storage devices or cloud services to keep backup copies in multiple places.

Cedar chests? Yes, but ...

A common notion is that cedar makes an ideal container for textiles. Cedar chests are lovely and they smell good. But textiles in direct contact with cedar can be damaged by the acid. The solution is to wrap the textiles in unbleached muslin (available at fabric stores) before putting them in the chest. You also can drape muslin over that wedding dress or other fine clothes on hangers.

Don't leave textiles in dry-cleaning or any other plastic bags. The bags off-gas chemicals that can damage cloth. Polypropylene, polyethylene or polyester plastic containers, mentioned earlier, can be used for textile storage.

Check on your treasures every once in a while to make sure they're not incurring damage from pests, moisture or anything else.

Free consults available at the library

Preservation staff will do free consultations on preserving your treasures. Make an appointment by calling 4-0776 or emailing Seo,, or conservator Melissa Tedone, also can get some insights into university preservation projects on the library's preservation blog.

If treasures that are very valuable or dear to your heart need repair, consider consulting a conservator, who specializes in objects like yours. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works website has information on preservation and a guide to conservators, by specialty and region.