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Preserving your personal history through fires, floods and natural disasters

Published: Sunday, Oct. 31 2010 5:37 p.m. MDT

Scott Simkins holds an example of a valuable volume damaged by careless handling.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Scott Simkins has pictures of dying books that are too graphic to show. They've been eaten alive in basement cardboard boxes, lost the binding or crumbled with overuse.

They are personal histories, photo albums and treasured documents that have not been adequately cared for.

Simkins is the head conservator at the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In April, he warned an audience during a lecture about the impending doom and destruction that awaits unpreserved family history materials.

Simkins has fun with the scare tactics, but he does want to motivate others to better care for their journals and precious documents.

"Take the time to preserve your precious histories and treasures before it's too late," he said.

Simkins is one of the Mormon Church's top authorities on collection dynamics. He emphasizes the "ings" of preserving: handling, documenting, organizing, preparing, mending, sharing and storing.

Part of handling histories requires understanding the anatomy of a book, Simkins said.

Many are guilty of pulling a book out by the top of the headcap with their index finger. Instead, try pushing the books on each side inward so the book is easier to pull out, or, if possible, reaching around and tapping the book out from the opposite side. Simkins also suggested washing your hands before touching the pages of a book.

"Do not lick your fingers," he said. "Clean your hands beforehand to retain that tactile feel."

When documenting and organizing your history, consider how to arrange items so they aren't lost or misidentified.

"Your journal won't make it into the hands of your descendants unless you help it into their hands," Simkins said.

Proper preparation includes removing anything that will cause damage, such as extraneous materials, dust and debris. If you run into mold, don't remove it, Simkins said. Place the book in a clear plastic bag.

Mending should usually be left to professionals, Simkins said. He showed examples of how Scotch tape on a torn page cannot be repaired. He also recommended finding a conservator at your local state university for help.

"If you do it, don't do anything irreversible so someone can fix what you did later," he said.

If you have an original document, Simkins recommended making copies — digital or otherwise — and sharing the copies before letting everyone handle the original. He noted that the LDS Church History Library accepts journal donations.

"Share the original cautiously. Maybe it's a good opportunity to explain the anatomy of a book to the grandkids," he said. "Then tuck the original away where it is safe and share copies."

Improper storage is often where family treasures are lost. The ancient Egyptians knew how to do it, Simkins said.

"What was the secret? It was a box within a box within a box," he said. "If your journal is in the middle of a couple of boxes, it will have a microenvironment of its own, with less dust, gases and fumes."

Simkins suggested keeping precious items out of the light and away from pipes, air-conditioning units, radiators, exterior walls and extreme heat.

Encapsulation is the key, he said, but avoid cardboard boxes or laminating documents because those are not good, effective long-term methods.

As more and more people take interest in preserving family history, they often end up thinking, "Wow, I wish this wasn't beaten up so much," Simkins said. "What could we have done to keep it around longer?

"More and more I am being asked to speak to groups who are thinking about what they need to do to keep stuff around," Simkins said. "We usually don't jump on it until its too late, then conservation comes into play.

"I hope we can catch these things up front first."

e-mail: ttoone@desnews.com