Looking through old family photos and documents can get overwhelming pretty quickly. Especially if you’re trying to find the safest way to store those documents! What is the safest and best way to store important family documents?
The safest way to store family documents is to create digital copies and then store the originals in archival-quality storage devices. Store those containers in a dry, safe environment that can control light, temperature, and humidity. Here is what you need to know about the safest methods.
Ready to see the safest, best ways to store various family documents and photos? Let’s do this – first with the basic rules and then some specifics by document type.
How Can I Safely Store My Family Documents?
The thought of storing family documents might be overwhelming at first – but it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, with the right materials and these tips, storing family documents can actually be pretty easy.
It’s time to store those family documents safely. Here’s the safest, best way to do it – based on lessons from genealogists, the National Archives and Records Administration recommendations, and lots of research.
Keep in mind that these are the basic steps – then check the following sections of this article for additional recommendations for specific types of family documents.
|Store Family Documents||Important Notes||Safest, Best Example||What Not to Do|
|Choose a storage location||Make sure it’s in an area that’s temperature, light, and humidity-controlled.||In an office closet on a shelf.||In a garage; in a storage room with exposed pipes; or in a basement room on the floor.|
|Handle documents with clean hands in a clean area.||Depending on the age and condition of the documents, you may want to also use gloves.||Sort through documents with clean hands on a clean table.||Sort through family documents at the breakfast table while eating.|
|Prepare the documents for storage.||Remove items that could distort or damage the documents, like staples, paperclips, or anything else that could rust.||Remove staples, paperclips, or other nonessential and potentially damaging things.||Staple or paperclip papers together and then put them into a sheet protector.|
|Make a digital copy of the original.||Now is a great time to make a digital copy of the original.||Use a scanner or snap a photo with your smartphone.||Don’t skip this step.|
|Use archival-quality materials.||Look for these materials and designations: archival-quality, lignin, acid-free, polyester sheet protectors, and high cotton fiber counts.||Get archival-quality, polyester sheet protectors.||Get the cheapest, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheet protectors.|
|Use a storage medium that fits the documents.||Use appropriately-sized sheet protectors, boxes, and containers to protect the original documents.||Store documents in the right-sized sheet protector and box – make sure the edges are protected, too.||Store papers in an ill-fitting sheet protector or box that damages the original.|
|Use a strong, sturdy archival-quality box.||You can store the papers with or without folders for better organization.||Keep all letters in one box with their envelopes and all larger papers in a separate box.||Throw all the papers, letters, and photographs together in a cardboard box.|
Now, let’s discuss a few of these in more detail because the details are important.
Why do you want to choose a temperature, light, and humidity-controlled storage area? Well, papers will react to all three of those influences.
- Temperature extremes can damage papers and photographs. If it’s too hot, photographs can warp. The cold can also affect paper and pictures. Please don’t ever store important family documents in a garage – unless it’s some sort of super-fancy, temperature-controlled storage and not a place where you park your vehicles.
- Light exposure will change photos and family papers. Too much light can fade or discolor any papers – or photographs. So if you want to keep the documents in their best condition, keep them out of direct sunlight in particular.
- Moisture and humidity can impact papers and photographs. Not enough humidity will cause the paper to embrittle and break. Too much humidity will cause it to become wavy, wrinkly, or even moldy.
Next, you also need a clean staging area for sorting through documents. Otherwise, they’re going to get dirty and damaged – and we don’t want that to happen! So as tempting as it is to sort through important family documents while you’re eating toast with jam, please don’t do it. You’ll get jam all over those letters and pictures!
Instead, set up a card or project table in a clean-ish room (ideally a clean room). That way, you can either take the table down between uses or you can just shut the door – and keep all sorts of sticky fingers away from those important documents.
Then, remove any staples, paperclips, or whatever else could distort the papers, ruin the documents, or cause rust damage. Got it? Great.
Now let’s make a digital copy!
That way, you’ve got a backup if something does happen to the original. And, when do family members want to be able to see the family document? You can send them access to the digital version – or print them off their own copy of it. That way, the original can stay safely stored for special occasions – however you define that!
Next, as you’re storing the originals in archival-quality sheet protectors and boxes, make sure that they’re the right size. You don’t want to try to stuff documents or photos in too-small containers. If there are edges hanging out, they will get destroyed (trust me).
On the other hand, if you store papers in too-big boxes, the papers will shift and sink – and they will definitely lose whatever organization style you were trying to use. Similarly, a too-small box is also problematic. Papers will have to be bent in order to fit – and that could cause irreparable damage.
So get an appropriately-sized storage container and skip the damage and heartache.
Finally, make sure that you’re using archival-quality, polyester sheet protectors. They’re more expensive than the vinyl (polyvinyl chloride or PVC) sheet protectors, but they’re worth it. This is because the polyester sheet protectors are far more chemically stable than the vinyl ones.
In fact, the vinyl ones actually emit various chemicals (including hydrochloric acid) as they degrade – and so then there goes your acid-free archival environment. Using vinyl might save you some money upfront, but it will damage, fade, and degrade your family documents.
So go ahead and get the better sheet protectors – and keep your family documents intact and safely stored for future generations.
What is the Best Way to Store Old Letters?
For letters, follow the general steps outlined earlier in this article. Then, the biggest specific tip is to store them separately – and flat! Don’t leave them folded up in the envelope. Leaving letters folded up and creased means you’ll have to unfold them to read them – and the letters will wear out faster along those creases.
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If the letters are already fragile from being stored folded up, get some archival-quality backing board (like this one, available on Amazon) for added support. The downside to that is that, if the letter is two-sided, it’ll be harder to read – but it’ll also last longer. So it’s a bit of a trade-off.
Then, store family letters in an appropriately-sized sheet protector. If you store each page of a letter in a sheet protector, that may give the pages enough support that you can skip the backer board.
Storing each page of the letter individually has one other major benefit – the pages are individually contained and can’t contaminate each other. This means there won’t be any more bleeding of ink from one page to another or grease transfer from one sheet to another. Plus, it means you can easily read both sides of the letter!
One final note on the best and safest ways to store old letters – there will be one extra step when making a digital copy. After you digitize the letter, you’ll also want to transcribe what it says. That way, you’ve got a readable, typed version of what the letter says. This can be especially handy if the letter is difficult to read!
Future generations who don’t specialize in reading old-fashioned calligraphy writing will thank you. So go ahead and type out that letter while you’re scanning it. And then, keep those two files together. That way, they’ll be easier to find when you do want to look at them.
How Should I Store Personal Documents at Home?
You can absolutely store family and personal documents at home. In general, follow the original recommendations listed in the first section of this article.
Personal documents that should be safely stored at home may include:
- Birth certificates
- Marriage certificates
- Social security cards
- Insurance documents
- Important medical records
- Anything else you need
However, you’re going to want to add one other factor to your list of considerations: fire. You may want to keep the most important family and personal documents together in a fireproof safe. That way, in the case of an emergency, they’re easy to grab and go.
You may also want to consider the type of fireproof safe that you use to store your documents.
- Some people prefer a regular-looking fireproof safe – that way, in case of a fire or emergency where you weren’t able to grab the safe, firefighters may be able to recognize and rescue the safe for you.
- Some people prefer a covert fireproof safe that looks like something else. This may help prevent theft in case of a break-in.
There’s not going to be a right or a wrong – there aren’t any studies proving one way over the other. So it’s going to be whichever you’re more comfortable with. In any case, if burglars are a big concern, you may also want to stash a fake safe somewhere in hopes that it’s taken instead of the actual safe.
An important note about digital copies of personal documents: for these documents, you may opt to skip making digital copies for security and to prevent identity theft issues. However, if you do want to have digital versions of these documents, you most definitely can do so. You’ll just need to consider extra security measures, such as encrypting those files.
Tips for Scanning Documents
Scanning documents is so much easier than it used to be! There are so many wonderful options these days. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Buy a quality scanner to use at home. A scanner should come with scanning software, though you could also opt for buying separate scanning software such as ScanSpeeder.
- Use the scanners at a local family history library – if it’s a FamilySearch-associated library, scanners can be used for free.
- Use your smartphone.
- Hire someone else (or a company) to do it for you.
If you’re researching scanners to buy them, make sure you’re getting one that has an auto-crop feature. That way, you can scan multiple photos at once – and the software will automatically recognize the edges of the photos and save them as individual files.
This is a dated video, but it’ll show you what the auto-crop feature looks like and does.
Breanne loves using the free scanners at the family history library in Riverton, Utah – it’s the large flatbed style and has the auto-crop feature. She’s able to scan several photos at a time – and even with the tiny little photos, it’s able to recognize the photo borders, save them as separate files, and do it all fairly quickly.
I (Kimberly) currently prefer to “scan” important and family documents with my smartphone. It does mean I have to crop the photos myself, but it gives me greater flexibility and it’s doable for me. Plus, I have my photos set to automatically save to my Google Photos, so that way I’ve got digital copies saved on the cloud without any extra steps.
When you’re saving images, consider the scanning size. Scanners usually have several options and pixelation sizes. So you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of each size.
- Using a higher (600+) dpi in a .tiff file format will mean a larger file size – but they’ll be better quality files for printing.
- Using a lower (300) dpi in a .jpg file format will mean a smaller size – and it might be a lower quality format if you print it later.
It’s going to be finding the balance that works for you – in both ability to save the file (size) and how badly you’ll want to print it or view it in the future (quality).
Personally, this is why I love storing photos on my Google Photos – the images are stored at a high quality that can still print well, but as long as I don’t mind a small amount of file compression, then there’s an unlimited amount of free storage. Then, it’s also saved on the cloud – and I can access the images and documents from any computer or device that I can log into.
Even if you do use a cloud service (whether Google’s, Apple, Amazon’s AWS, Dropbox, OneDrive, or other services) to store your digital versions of important family documents and photos, you may also want to save those files to a local or external hard drive. Or you may want to save those files to multiple options. That way, there are backups and redundancies in case one system is compromised, hacked, or files are corrupted.
You may also want to store your important documents on FamilySearch’s Memory app. You’ll have to decide which to include if any. However, that app is positively built to last and we’re confident it’s going to be around for many years – so it can be a great backup option (even if it’s a backup of a backup).
Finally, hiring this whole process out is also an option. You’ll have to decide if it’s worth it to you, your family, and within your budget. Some of the services can be quite pricy – and you’ll still need to get the files and store them on your own.
Oh – and if the service price seems too good to be true? Be wary. There are far too many stories on the news about people who entrusted valuable family documents and photographs to companies with too-good-to-believe prices – only to never get those documents or digital copies back.
So if you do want to hire this out, you’ll still need to do a good deal of research and due diligence. Be sure to go with a known name if possible. If you need a place to start, check with your local Costco – some local warehouses do memory transfer and digital preservation.
How to Preserve and Store Older Family Photographs
When preserving and storing older family photographs, please refer to the above sections first. Then, come back here for some final and vital tips.
Even so, let’s make sure we’ve got the steps outlined for you – that way it’s easy peasy lemon squeezy.
- Get the originals sorted and ready for storage.
- Save old photos that were improperly stored by removing glue, magnetic pages, self-stick pages, or inadequate album pages.
- Create a digital copy by scanning it – please refer to the scanning tips above.
- For damaged original family photos, consider taking visibly damaged photos to a professional conservationist for cleaning.
- For family photos that can’t be fixed but have digital copies, please consider digital restoration.
- Store the older family photographs in archival-quality, acid-free settings. This could be via sheet protectors, boxes, or any combination of P.A.T.-labeled materials.
- Store the digital versions of family photographs in multiple locations for backups and redundancy. You may opt for physical hard drives, cloud-based storage, M-discs, BluRay discs, or on apps like FamilySearch Memories (it’s built to last!).
Okay – now a few more notes on specific steps.
Digital photo restoration is an amazing thing. It’s great for old photos that have damage or new photos that need touching up. This can be done with specialized programs like Lightroom, Photoshop, Gimp, and other programs. You could do this yourself or you could hire a professional. To do it yourself, you will need to learn your preferred program very well. You may also want to search “extreme photo restoration” on YouTube for ideas and guidance.
When you’re storing old photos, you want to find storage materials labeled as appropriate. They’ll be marked as having passed the Photographic Activity Test (P.A.T.). Gaylord archival products are a great brand to start looking at to get you going. We’ll have links later on in this article to some of our favorite archival-quality containers (including some from Gaylord) – so keep reading to get to those.
Finally, there are a lot of great storage options for photos. FamilySearch’s Memories is still a fantastic option – plus, you can tie old family images to those ancestors. That way, you can very easily share those old family pictures with relatives.
And if you’d like to watch a pretty cool presentation on long-term optical storage? M-discs are a cool new option that Breanne’s husband mentioned. You can learn more about them at this link here.
How to Store Current Family Photographs
While there are still film cameras, they aren’t as common anymore. These days, most people are using digital cameras (either via their smartphone or a dedicated digital camera). So most current family photos are already digital.
So as you’re looking to store current, already-digital family photos, there are a lot of fantastic options.
- Google Photos
- Amazon (AWS)
- OneDrive (Microsoft)
- FamilySearch Memories
- And so many more options!
Breanne and I both love using Google Photos – it has some basic facial recognition that makes searching photos amazingly easy. You can search by name (you do have to identify a few faces at first to do this, though), by date, event, location (if you allowed geotagging), and other details, like if your pet is in the photo!
However, you will also want to make sure you’ve either got some sort of backup system in place (in case of damage, file corruption, or other issues) if you’re going to cloud-based storage. You may also want to keep an external hard drive or backup of your own. It’s the rule of multiples, after all – always have multiple copies or backups.
You can use the same digital storage options for current photos as you did (or do) for older family photographs.
Recommended Products for Storing Family Documents
All right – now let’s get into some of the products we use, found during our research for this article, and/or recommend for storing family documents. Please note that we haven’t tried all of these, but we did spend an inordinate amount of time researching products and reading the reviews. That way, you won’t have to!
Products are listed alphabetically. Each product will indicate where it can be found.
- 5″ wide for letter-sized prints and photos (on Amazon)
- 8″x10″ Museum storage box with removable lid (click here to see the price on Amazon)
- 11″x14″ faux leather clamshell archival folio (click here to see color and pricing options on Amazon)
- Envelopes – poly, waterproof, various sizes (click here to see on Amazon)
- Digital Storage
- Hard drives – get the biggest-sized drive that fits your budget.
- M-Disc BD-R (on Amazon, as recommended by Breanne’s husband)
- Thumb drive – Sandisk (click here to see size and price options on Amazon)
- File folders (1/3 cut top tab, manila-colored – check price on Amazon)
- Fireproof Storage
- Sheet protectors (12″x16.25″ size – available on Amazon – click here)
Now, this is by no means an exhaustive list – that would be a whole post in and of itself! But these should be enough to get you started on storing whatever documents you’re trying to create digital copies of right now. And they should help you keep those documents safe, secure, and lasting for generations yet to come. For more of our specific recommendations, be sure to check our recommended tools and resources page.
What is Conservation? Conservation is a part of the preservation process that focuses on getting objects back into their best shape while maintaining the historical integrity of the item. Most conservation should be done by a professional. For more information, read this article on conservation.
What is Preservation? Preservation is a range of processes, though the main idea is to simply treat objects in a way that prevents deterioration over time so that the objects can be enjoyed for generations. For more on preservation, read this article here.
Do I need a fancy scanner to digitize family history papers and photos? No. While more elaborate scanners may be able to scan your papers faster, easier, and with greater quality, a basic scanner is just fine. Many people “scan” family documents and photos by taking pictures of them with their smartphones.
When learning about genealogy, it’s important to learn from various reputable sources. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as genealogists.
- “How to Preserve Family Archives (Papers and Photographs).” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives.