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Keeping the stuff you keep: preserving documents, photos

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SALT LAKE CITY — Christopher McAfee's interest in conservation of artifacts began in a wet walk-through closet about 20 years ago. Yes, it was weird enough that he lived somewhere that had a closet between the bedroom and the bathroom. But water in the walk-through closet was weirder still. His first thought jumped to the fact his child was potty training, but investigation showed that a slow leak from a water heater was the culprit.

A slow leak that slowly soaked into boxes of personal memorabilia. McAfee, senior conservator at LDS Church History, told a session on April 30 at the National Genealogical Society 2010 Family History Conference several tricks and tips for preserving family history documents, photographs, media and artifacts. Paper is fragile, McAfee said. "Paper is more fragile than a baby, and I'll let my children hold a baby before I'll let them hold a rare document." Gloves should be worn when handling rare old documents. Or not. McAfee doesn't wear them. He said that gloves make it harder to feel what you are doing. They also make his hands sweat — which the wicking power of the cotton brings straight to the paper. Just wash your hands every hour or so, he recommends. "About 50 percent of the conservators out there disagree with me," he said. You should never mark and artifact. Or maybe you should. Sure, an official library or archive is not going to write on objects or photographs. But you are not an archive. McAfee laments the many photographs from his late father that were filled with people — but no identification. Just be careful and use a photograph marker and write the information on the back near the edge. Or put it in an archival photo sleeve and identify it there. But identify it. Don't repair your own items. No really, don't do it. Beware of things like document repair tape. Sure, the material is "archival" and acid-free. But its adhesive will eventually come out around the edges as it expands and stick to things. It also could change the color of photographs. Get a conservation expert to repair something if it is valuable — or just don't repair it. Put it in a nice archival box. McAfee gave an example of an item that if it had been "repaired" it would have been ruined: The Book of Mormon read in Carthage Jail. Hyrum Smith read from the Book of Mormon and turned down a corner at that place. "That folded page is part of the history," McAfee said. "Our first reaction, if they hadn't told us (about the story) would have been to straighten out the page. Sometimes no repair is the best repair." Things need to be kept dry. Unless they need to be hydrated a little. Sometimes things get folded or rolled. Rather than just unroll or unfold them, McAfee recommended hydrating the paper first. For this, you need to get two plastic containers. The first one is dry. This is the one you put the document in. The second tray is large enough to put the first one inside. Put about an inch of water in the second tray. Carefully put the first tray inside it. Don't get any water directly on the document. Put the lid over the second tray. You should now have a document in an open container and that open container is almost floating inside the second container that has its lid on. Leave the lid on overnight. The humidity should soften the paper to make it easier to flatten or unroll. But keep things dry and cool. Some things in the LDS Church History Library vaults are kept at a cool 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Other things are kept at minus-4 degrees. Too much humidity may cause mold. Keeping photographs in special freezer containers is a good idea. But don't take them out and suddenly open them. First let the box acclimate for a few days after you take them out of the freezer, then open it. Keep things in the dark. "There is no light that does not cause damage," McAfee said. The more light, the worse. Go digital. And then go digital again. And again. McAfee recommends using external hard drives to store digital media such as scanned photographs, videos and audio files. If you have a copy on a computer hard drive and then two or even three external hard drives, the chances of ever losing anything is lowered. If a drive fails, replace it and copy from a good drive. This can continue for a long time. A drive fails, replace it and copy anew from a good drive. And keep one in another location — like a sibling's home or a safety deposit box for added security. CDs and DVDs could last a long time, but McAfee recommends that you think about them as something that only lasts five years. Every five years you should copy them onto new discs. Preserve things by throwing things out. Too many similar things can become like noise that makes the good stuff less obvious. "Some times we collect so much that nobody ever has the time to go through it. Save the pertinent parts — the parts that matter," McAfee said. And beware of walk-through closets. McAfee keeps things in plastic containers — Sterlilite brand to be precise — these days. Come potty training or water heater, he isn't taking any chances. For more about home conservation of artifacts, McAfee recommends these websites: — Canadian Conservation Institute: Preserving My HeritageLibrary of Congress Preservation: Caring for Your CollectionsMinnesota Historical Society: Preserve Your Family Treasures

E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com