How to care for family tree documents at home


01 December 2022
Old_Time_Swimming_Photograph-41318.jpg Ensure family photos stand the test of time
Ensure the precious family papers and photographs relating to your ancestors can be enjoyed for years to come, with our expert guide.

Ensure the precious family papers and photographs relating to your ancestors can be enjoyed for years to come, with our expert guide.

Heather Perry, conservation and museum manager at Wiltshire and Swindon Archives and History Centre, shares her top tips for ensuring that your precious family tree papers and photographs stand the test of time.

Heather runs the Conservation and Museum Advisory Service, which is based at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. The team provides advice and support for Wiltshire’s museums and archive and object conservators provide training, support, preventative and remedial conservation services for organisations and private individuals, as well as making sure that the archives are preserved so that the public can access them.

Many of you will have precious family papers at home, and Heather and her team have some useful tips to help you keep them safe:

  • Good storage and packaging is the key to preserving archival materials at home: good quality acid free packaging materials will prolong the life of them; preventing acid damage and keeping items protected from light and dust. Ordinary cardboard, paper and plastics will cause discolouration and the breakdown of the paper fibres.
  • Documents should be stored flat wherever possible rather than folded or rolled, unless too fragile to handle or too large. Folds will put strain on documents when handled.
  • No handling or minimal handling is best from a conservation point of view, but records are also there to be looked at and used. Handling your items safely or finding ways to minimise the impact of handling them will also prevent damage. The most basic principle of good handling is clean hands, handle documents with two hands by the edges to fully support the item, avoid the corners - they can be well thumbed and dog-eared.
  • Handle books from shelves by the front and back cover, moving other books aside to get to them. Do not handle by the top of the spine or by the joint of the spine, this can cause broken head caps and loose covers in hardbacks. Avoid handling the image of photographs; only handle by the edges to avoid damage to the emulsion.
  • The ideal type of packaging for books is a three-dimensional folder made from strong acid free board called folding box board. It is meant to encase fragile books, but they can also be used to store large groups of items such as documents, magazines, periodicals or diaries. The titles and dates can be labeled on the spine. These can be bought from preservation materials suppliers online.
  • Acid free four flap folders are good for small groups of papers or photographs, or single items. A good method of storing single or pairs of photographs is to use a clear polyester sleeve with an acid free board cut to size to support the photograph. This allows photographs to be stored safely and without handling the image.
  • Polyester sleeves without the board can be used for documents, although they are not good for fragile things as they create a static charge.


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  • You can buy acid free photograph albums or ring binders either with blank pages or polyester sleeves. The ones with blank pages are ideal to store large collections of photographs, you can keep them in a certain order and label them underneath. They are a good way of replacing old photo albums with plastic sleeves.
  • You can hold your photographs in place in acid free photo albums using archival photo corner mounts. These are triangular shaped polyester pockets which stick to the paper or board and the photographs slot in by the corners. This is a good way of attaching them without damaging them with adhesive and also, they are easy to remove.
  • Alternatively, you can buy polyester pockets that hold multiple photographs, they can be used in ring-binders or in boxes. Ordinary plastic wallets are not suitable for archival materials, as they contain harmful chemicals which emit gas and cause structural damage to paper. Stick to polyester sleeves from preservation materials suppliers such as Preservation Equipment Ltd for confidence that you’re using safe materials.
  • A simpler way of storing photographs is in acid free envelopes. You can buy envelopes that are specially made for photographs from preservation suppliers.


  • About the most simple and cost effective way you can store your items at home is in a good quality acid free box: they create their own micro climate which buffers items from the environment and they can store many items together. Ours come from a company called Ryder, but you can buy acid free boxes from any good craft shop or from preservation suppliers online.
  • Books on shelves should ideally be stored quite close together, full shelves are safer for the books than more empty shelves, as they support each other. However, books shouldn’t be so tightly packed that moving them could damage them; they can get abraded.
  • Storing items in drawers is fine, as long as there is some form of protection such as an acid free envelope.

(Image: books © Jess Mann)

Originally published Januar 2017. Reviewed December 2022.