A short time ago, I randomly opened a book, a history of my mother, Twila Gagon Peck, which we prepared for her in 2005 for her 100th birthday. (She lived for another four years to bless all our lives.) The thing I meant to talk about, however, was not the book, but what I found tucked into the front of it.
Included were the notes I jotted to speak at Mom's funeral, a poem that I had used even earlier to speak at my brother Ralph's funeral and a letter I had for some unexplained reason tucked into the front of that book, which had nothing to do with anybody's funeral. The letter dated back to the late 1970s and was from President N. Eldon Tanner, then a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was just a kind expression of thanks for an article I had done on him. Probably a recognition of a birthday or something. I don't recall.
The important thing here is not that I received a note from a notable (my job as a reporter prompted that kind of thing now and again) but rather is the nature of my filing system. Mostly, I don't have one. I haven't been a serious family historian and so have little bits of "stuff" all over my house. I have piles of newspaper clippings bearing my byline, thanks to my mother. I have pictures and letters and mementos and a whole bunch of this and that. I have it in boxes, in bags, in bins, in drawers, in my cedar chest (which is a bit of memorabilia in itself, having been a gift to my mother from my dad on the day I was born).
Now, as a missionary in the Family History Department, I am told, forcefully, that this stuff matters and that I had better get with the program. Preservation, I am told, matters as much as the collection. (That part was easy. I just threw stuff into places.)
So let's get serious. I invited Christopher McAfee of Brigham Young University to share tips on how to take care of things that matter, and he responded with a "primer" on how to care for your collections at home.
• If you have artifacts such as quilts, etc., that you don't want to donate to a museum and would like to display, be sure they are placed out of direct sunlight or lights that emit ultraviolet rays, such as fluorescent lights. You can buy fluorescent lights that don't emit the rays and window glass that is coated to block UV rays.
• Frame photos and documents you want to display, and ensure that three-dimensional items are well-supported and in a stable position.
• Stored items should be kept in dark, cool, dry areas, avoiding contact with sunlight and UV lighting. Be careful of high temperatures and possible exposure to water damage. If possible, store items in places that don't have extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
• Be sure that boxes, folders, plastic sleeves, etc., are made from archival materials. They should be acid- and lignin-free. Never use vinyl or acetate containers.
• Digital documents, audio files and video files will not last beyond five years in most cases. Back them up on external hard drives and refresh at least every five years. They can also be preserved online for future generations at a multitude of websites, such as Forever.com. For example, FamilySearch.org offers free unlimited storage of family documents, photos and audio files using the Memories feature (and they have an integrated mobile app by the same name, but don’t ask me how it works), but it doesn’t offer video storage yet. You upload the electronic files or images of the artifacts to a folder in your account profile and then later assign them as applicable to the profile of respective ancestor(s) or upload them directly to an ancestor’s profile on the site.
• Avoid using white glues, rubber cement or cellophane and other pressure-sensitive tapes on historical documents. Don't laminate them or use photo albums that require gluing items to the page.
• Don't write on historical documents. Find other methods of identifying them, such as marking the folders that contain them or using archival labels that can be tied to the items with string.
• Don't attempt to repair damaged items on your own. If there are tears, breaks, discoloration or other damage, consult a professional conservator.
• The LDS Church has several sites that give specific instruction on how to protect precious family history items, including more specific instruction from experts such as Brother McAfee. Go to history.lds.org and follow the links (or see history.lds.org/section/preservation-and-conservation). Your ward and stake specialists can also point you to resources; use them.
Most of all, don't come to me for advice. I'm still learning about this, too.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who has recently been called to serve as a family history missionary.