Office Hours: What's In Your Attic?

Laura Coyle

In 2007, Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) received the family papers of William H. Scott Sr., an African American Baptist minister and political activist, and his son William H. Scott Jr. The collection, which spans 1848 to 1982, includes scrapbooks, correspondence, photographs, broadsides, sermons, and other collected material.

Scrapbooks can be a gold mine for historians and researchers, but they are rarely well preserved and somewhat famously vulnerable to the ravages of time. In the Scott collection, “Some of the scrapbook bindings were relatively intact,” wrote MARBL conservator Suzanne Sawyer in a blog post, “while others were in very poor condition, with issues such as very brittle pages, detached newspaper articles, water and mold damage, and staining or discoloration from acidic substrate material, and some were in need of spine repairs.” The materials were treated extensively so that they could safely be made available to scholars. 

You may have boxes of such stuff from previous (or present) generations in your attic or basement—old photos and albums, letters, medals, handmade or hand-sewn items, diaries, family Bibles, kids’ homework and artwork—and items you don’t even know are there. We spoke with Randall Burkett, curator of African American Collections at the Emory Libraries and MARBL, and other members of Emory’s conservation team to offer a few tips on what to do with your own personal archive.

Six Tips for Organizing Your Personal Archive

Avoid Sticky Situations.

Sometimes holding it all together can seem so right, but is actually the worst thing you can do. “In terms of preserving materials, the things most people have readily at hand—Scotch tape, glue—are almost always the wrong things to use,” Burkett says. “We have gotten scrapbooks held together by duct tape, which is a disaster to try to deal with. I would say that’s the No. 1 problem in self repairs; people want to save and preserve their things, but the easiest way may work for six months, or a few years, and all of a sudden the tape becomes darkly yellowed, impossible to get off, and ultimately does more damage than doing nothing.”

No Photo Synthesis.

Light, heat, and moisture—which can be abundant in storage spaces like attics and basements—are all bad for aging materials of nearly any kind. Store historic valuables such as letters and photographs in airtight containers and away from windows. “Color photographs can fade incredibly quickly when exposed to light,” says Burkett, “and too much heat is always worse than too little.”

Get it Together.

Make choices about what to save for future generations and get rid of the rest. Regardless of family history or stature, most people value personal items such as photographs, letters, and family Bibles above things like financial records or decades’ worth of National Geographic magazine. Label photographs—gently, in pencil, on the back—with dates and names whenever possible. If you envision your great-grandchildren exclaiming, one future day, over a picture of you on a pony at your fifth birthday party, make it easy for them; label containers by date and type of material. And if you are discarding identifying documents such as tax records, don’t forget to use a shredding service—you never know who may poke through the trash. 

Don't Delay.

It’s easy to put off archiving projects, but the less organized your belongings, the more likely that items of real value—whether sentimental or historical—will simply be lost in transition. You may have materials that hold interest for research institutions like universities, museums, or historical societies; many collect items such as Civil War–era letters, rare periodicals, and old yearbooks. “Unless you know what you have and understand its value, it’s very easy for stuff to just get away,” Burkett says. “You or your family members may not be able to take the time to really go through things later, so it’s best to do it when you can give them the attention they deserve.”

Think Outside the Boxes.

Many organizations that might be interested in helping to preserve your family materials are just a phone call away. For more information, visit the Library of Congress website on “Preserving Your Family Treasures” where you can find tips on storage, matting and framing, insuring valuables, emergency preparedness, and how to make a family time capsule, scrapbook, or album. 

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