Humidity And Your Documents

The most frequent question I get is: How can I preserve and save my family documents.  I will often ask questions to try and figure out the current condition to make recommendations.  My basic recommendations are:  1. Unfold the documents and store flat.  Documents tear along fold lines.  Unfolding these documents, will take the stress off of the fold.  2. Do not store archival material in direct sunlight.  The UV light will cause the documents and photographs to fade.  3.  Do not store artwork, documents or photographs on outside walls.  Outside walls have the most contact with outdoor temperature fluctuations and will expand and contract depending on the weather conditions, causing your material to expand and contract.   4.  Do not store your documents in attics or basements, because of the lack of control over temperature and humidity and risk of flooding.  Too much humidity can cause mold growth and too little humidity can make archival material brittle.  Both accelerate the deterioration of archival material.   5.  If your documents are rolled and maintain their tube-like shape, do not unroll them.  Unrolling them will cause them to break at stress points along the roll.  The documents will need to be humidified and once relaxed, can then be viewed.

Rolled Document
This is a rolled document before humidification.  You can see where the document has started to tear along the roll.  You can also see where the donor, at one point, tried to tape the tears to keep the document from breaking.  Please do not tape your documents.  The adhesive will add to the deterioration of the document.
Broken Photograph
This photograph has broken apart along the fold and is now in multiple pieces.  Curiosity got the best of the donor of this image.  When the first section broke off, he continued to unroll the image to see it in its entirety.  As a result, the image is in multiple pieces and cannot be put back together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I started working here, I made the recommendation that documents could be humidified in a steamy bathroom.  After a couple of long hot showers, the documents would begin to relax and then could be better handled.  I made that recommendation, because I had tested it in my bathroom when I was living in New York.  It worked great; until this past winter.  The Henry Janssen Library is climate controlled, up to a certain point.  During the winter the boiler is turned on and, in theory, I should be able to build up humidity in our humidifier.  We use the double garbage can method, with distilled water.  However, this past winter, nothing I did could get enough humidity into the chamber to humidify some tightly rolled documents.  As a last resort, I took them home to use my trusty bathroom method.  The bathroom humidification chamber didn’t work and I ended up bring the HJL’s humidification system home and finished the project.

I learned that the effectiveness of building up enough humidity in a bathroom, in order to hydrate documents is determined by the size of the bathroom.  My bathroom in Gibraltar is twice the size of my old one in New York and has a window.  Since the room is larger, it takes more steam to fill and less time for that steam to dissipate than in a smaller more compact space.   The documents were not getting enough time to soak in the moisture.   I forgot history preservation is also about physics.

In an ideal setting, including the Henry Janssen Library, all archival material would be stored in an area lower than 68 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity between 30-50% with very little fluctuation.  Unfortunately, the recommended storage conditions are not the ideal living (or researching) conditions.  Fortunately for the “Do-It-Yourselfers” following the recommendations above will set you on the track toward preservation.

For more information on how you can humidify your documents, please check out this article “Practical Considerations for Humidifying and Flattening Paper” by Stephanie Watkins, found at: http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v21/bp21-15.pdf, or other resources through Google.

The Northeast Document Conservation Center states that temperature and humidity control is vital to the preservation of archival material because unacceptable levels cause the deterioration of the material.… Heat accelerates deterioration: the rate of most chemical reactions, including deterioration, is approximately doubled with each increase in temperature of 18°F (10°C). High relative humidity provides the moisture necessary to promote harmful chemical reactions in materials and, in combination with high temperature, encourages mold growth and insect activity. Extremely low relative humidity, which can occur in winter in centrally heated buildings, may lead to desiccation and embrittlement of some materials.  …Fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity are also damaging [because] …they respond to diurnal and seasonal changes…by expanding and contracting. Dimensional changes accelerate deterioration and lead to such visible damage as cockling paper, flaking ink, warped covers on books, and cracked emulsion on photographs. – www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/2.-the-environment/2.1-temperature,-relative-humidity,-light,-and-air-quality-basic-guidelines-for-preservation

First Impressions

From the Collection of the Henry Janssen Library, Historical Society of Berks County

 

When I first started at the Historical Society, the curator was working on the World War I & World War II exhibit.  Even though the archives was not asked to participate, curiosity got the best of me and I went in search of images that could have been used for the exhibit.  The one above has been and still remains today to be one of my favorite images in our collection.

The Henry Janssen Library has over 20,000 images in its collection (probably more) and we have started the monumental task of digitizing all of the images for preservation and accessibility.  This project, like most of our inventorying projects, will take years to do because we can only work on the photographs when time, volunteers and money for supplies permit it.  There are other rare gems in our collection and I cannot wait to see them.

Regardless, choosing this picture is not why I am blogging about it.  In a few weeks, the library will be hosting a Senior Seminar from Albright College.  During their time here, I have to teach Seniors in the History Department the difference between primary and secondary resources.  When I first hosted this professor and she explained the premiss of the visit, I asked myself…”Shouldn’t they already know the difference?”  Apparently not.  Instead of concentrating on the differences, I focus on their uses.  It’s the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of History.  How would you use a letter, map, deed, a newspaper or a photograph to interpret or enhance your history?  Better yet…what is the story these items tell you?

Every time I look at this image, which up until six months ago was hanging on my door, I keep getting different answers.  I originally hung the copy up to try and scare people off from constantly parading through my office.  During World War I, this image probably did illicit fear, fear of poison gas, death in the trenches, or about war in general.  It mostly gave people a chuckle as the entered or left my office.  Today, looking at this image, I imagine what those men were thinking.  “This is the only photograph I’ve ever had and no one is going to see my face.”  “You want us to do what, pose with our gear on?  Why?”  “UGH!  This is so hot when will this be done?”  I like the soldier on the far left, who seems to be slouched like “maybe if I make myself smaller, no one will notice?”

Photographs tell stories as well as document a moment in time.  Looking back through your photographs, what do those images tell you?  What stories can you see, envision, or relate?  Most importantly, how does that image tell your history?

Note: The US National Archives Facebook pages host a weekly caption contest.  They post a unique image from their collection and ask their “friends” to come up with the best caption to describe that image.  My personal favorite was a group on men kneeling by beavers, that were on leashes.  Look for it, they might have it archived on their site.  It is a fun and interesting way to look at the photographs.  If you had to pick a caption for the above image, what would it be?

Water, Water Everywhere

It is no joke.  Berks County is flooded.  Rivers, streams and creeks exist where none existed in years.  As I was trying to zigzag my way home last night, trying to locate a road that was not closed, I started thinking about Disaster Recovery.  Not because I would have to undergo a recovery, but mostly because I kept thinking that, NO ONE ever thinks about Disaster Recovery until you are trying to scrap your family photo albums up off the basement floor into a garbage bag.  Being prepared and taking a few steps can help save your history.

First and foremost, important legal documents like your birth certificate, marriage certificate, family death certificates, passports, insurance policies, deeds, wills and probably a few other documents that are escaping me, should be stored in a Fireproof and Waterproof safe.  Many of these items, while some are replaceable and expensive to do so, are important enough to need following a crisis.  Keep them in a safe (no pun intended) location that is easily accessible.

If you have a basement, no matter how hard you try, items end up being stored down there.  If it floods, it is recommended that items be stored away from the walls in the middle of the room and raised up.  It is probably best to think of the last time your basement flooded, how far the water entered the room and how high up and start from there.  If items need to be stored on the floor, invest in Rubbermaid boxes with sealable lids.  Cardboards boxes are no match for water, but plastic will keep items dry and safe, and possibly float, which could be a bonus.  If your family photographs, life boxes or anything important is stored in the basement, plastic is the way to go.

Now, while the intricacies of a Recovery are to difficult to explain here, there are certain actions you can take to save items that were damaged:

MOST IMPORTANT: if your basement is now a swimming pool, keep in mind that there are electrical conduits around and probably breaker boxes.  If you cannot get your electricity shut off, DO NOT enter the water.  You will have to wait until the water recedes.

Documents, books, and photographs, are, believe it or not, in a semi-stable environment until the water starts drying.  For some items, there is nothing you will be able to do to recover them completely.  However, for the most part, these items sometime acclimate to their surroundings, until they change again.  The BIGGEST threat to all these items is not the water, but the mold that will ensue if you cannot cool and dehumidify your basement quickly and completely.  All the statistics on mold indicates that is forms and spreads within 24 hours.  I have seen it start forming and spread in less than 12.  Mold is the biggest destroyer of all items.  Combating that is a top priority because it is also a serious health issue!  Keep the air circulating for constant motion and drying purposes.

Documents and photographs can be recovered through air-drying.  Photographs need to be separated; the emulsion used in their manufacturing process, will turn sticky and once these items dry together, you will not be able to get them apart.  Once separated you can clothes pin them onto a line to air dry.  Documents, depending on weight of the paper when wet, can also be air-dried, or laid out on the floor.  Typically, in the library setting, we use blotting paper to assist in the “wicking” processes.  Paper towels should work.

However, Kitchen Paper Towels will not work.  This is important.  Manufacturers have designed them to lock moisture in and hold it in.  Paper towels, like the brown ones, that dry easily and do not have moisture lock are preferred and do work best.

Books tend to be a bit more difficult in the recovery process.  Improper handling of books can cause their spines to break and fall apart.  Books, like George M. Meiser IX, and Gloria Jean Meiser’s The Passing Scene, which are glossy coated, need to be treated carefully.  The pages of glossy covered books, needed to be interleafed with wax paper BEFORE the drying process starts, or the pages will stick together, and you will not get them apart.  For non-glossy format books, interleaving paper towels and standing them, wet side down will help gravity pull the water from the book.  Leave a portion of the paper towel around the edge of the book so when the water is wicked to the end, it can air dry and pull more moisture out.  When the bulk of the water is out, you might need to weight it down to finish the drying process, or you can end up with a book double its original size.

Wet items in frames need to be carefully removed from the frame so the item does not stick to the glass, rip apart and dries thoroughly.

These are just a few tips.  If you require more professional assistance, you can contact:

Berks Fire and Water Restorations, Inc. – http://bfwrestorations.com/

For professional archival assistance:

The Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts – http://www.ccaha.org/

and I like to give a shout out and mention the following organizations who assisted me in a library recovery 4 years or so ago:

The Northeast Document Conservation Center – http://www.nedcc.org/home.php

Document Reprocessors – http://documentreprocessors.com/

If at any point you have questions, please call the Historical Society, I will do my best to help point you in the right direction.  Stay Safe and Dry Berks County!