Research & Collections > Preservation Information

Preserving Historic DocumentsA Preservation Primer

Compiled by the Manuscripts Division of the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio.

Saving the Stuff

The only way to insure future use of a document is to not use it at all.

All Documents

  • Remove staples, paper clips, rubber bands or other unnecessary plastics and metals from the collection.
  • All items should be protected from heat, light, humidity and pollution.
  • All items should be placed in containers and folders which mediate deterioration processes. This includes acid free paper, folders and boxes, as well as chemically stable plastics. These should be labeled clearly describing the contents within the containers and folders (see the list of selected vendors at the end of this primer for telephone numbers and Web addresses from which supply catalogs can be ordered).
  • Use plastics (archival plastics) only when documents are frequently handled or are too brittle to be handled without support. Charcoal and pastels should not put in plastic sleeves as static electricity will smudge the document. Enclose document, do not encapsulate documents in plastic.
  • Unfold and flatten papers and photographs.
  • Use a soft brush to wipe away dirt.
  • If there is mold present, spread out items in a well ventilated area away from children and let the documents dry. Brush off mold when dry. Use a mask.
  • Print clearly when identifying documents! Remember the next person to use this treasure may not be able to read your handwriting.
  • Any questions? Call the American Institute for Conservation at (202)-452-9545. Or surf the web.


  • Paper will deteriorate no matter what you do, but if you manage its use, light, temperature, pollution and humidity you have done the best you can do.
  • If the document is fragile or faded you should type out the contents of the document on an acid free sheet of paper.
  • Use a No. 1 pencil to write information on the document. For example, you may wish to supply the date of a letter found on an envelope. Be sure to print small and legibly in a corner.
  • Plastics which are suitable for archival storage are polypropylene. (containers,) polyethylene (sleeves and bags,) duping Mylar Type D and ICI Melinex 516 (sleeves, covers and encapsulation.)


  • Do not use "magnetic storage albums."
  • Use acid free paper.
  • Use corners.
  • Do not use glue or tape.
  • Identify photographs and items in pencil on the scrapbook page, not on the document.
  • Do not laminate anything in plastic.


  • Should be photocopied onto acid free paper and the original if kept, keep away from other documents.
  • Most newsprint made prior to 1880 is cotton based and should remain in good condition if stored out of the light and in the correct temperature.
  • Newsprint after 1880 is generally made out of highly acidic wood pulp and will turn to dust at the mere touch. This newsprint should be photocopied.


  • Keep in cool dry place. All items should be protected from heat, light, humidity and pollution.
  • Have a VHS or digital (or the current format you have)copy made for viewing, but save the original because technology will change and the original film will have the clearest contrast.
  • Place original film on polypropylene film core in a polypropylene canister, avoid metal cans and reels for long term storage.


  • Keep in cool dry place. All items should be protected from heat, light, humidity and pollution.
  • There is not a standard preservation method available for video tapes. Have a second copy made for viewing and save the original as a "master copy."
  • If the recording contains an oral history make a paper based transcript! This transcript will last much longer than the tape or a digital copy.

Audio Cassette Tape

  • Keep in cool dry place. All items should be protected from heat, light, humidity and pollution.
  • Cassettes are poorly made and you should make a duplicate of any cassette recording and let the original become your "archival master."
  • If the recording contains an oral history make a paper based transcript! This transcript will last much longer than the tape or a digital copy.


  • All items should be protected from heat, light, humidity and pollution.
  • To provide long term protection, storage containers, folders and envelopes should be made of materials that are strong, durable and chemically stable.
  • Use a No. 1 pencil when writing on the back of a photo. If necessary photocopy photograph onto acid free paper and using a No. 1 pencil label the copy.
  • Keep out of direct sunlight! Display a copy.
  • Torn or badly damaged photos should have a copy negative and a use print made.
  • When handling a photograph wear gloves or hold at the edges.
  • If a photograph is matted, remove the mat unless it threatens to damage the original image. Many mats have a high acidity and will stain a photograph.
  • If a photograph is mounted do not attempt to remove the photograph - you may damage the image.
  • Make a negative if you do not have negatives of the original. Making a negative allows nearly limitless reproduction without harming the original.
  • Color photographs and slides will fade no matter what you do. To slow down this process store color photos together (not in the same folder as black and white photographs)in acid free folders and keep them out of the light. Color photocopies have an even shorter life span but are useful in display purposes.
  • It is currently safe to use polyester plastics such as DuPont Mylar Type D and ICI Melinex 516, untreated polypropylene, and polyethylene.
  • Black and white prints, negatives (both nitrate and acetate) should be in buffered folders (8.5 pH).

Photographic Media Types

Identifying the type of photograph is a difficult task. You may wish to consult George Gilbert, Photography: the Early Years or James M. Reilly, Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints, or other books in the library.

Albumen: 1855- ca.1920
A printing paper using albumen (egg white) as the medium for the active chemicals. The albumen content of the emulsion provided a distinctive and characteristic gloss, and most of the common developing baths lent a warm toned brownish hue to the image. Early albumen prints were generally done on papers that were 18 by 22 inches before they were trimmed to working size.

Ambrotypes: 1855- ca.1865
The ambrotype process was in use from 1855 to about 1865 but enjoyed its greatest popularity in the late 1850s. A negative image on glass (The glass is called a "support" and it is so1metimes colored). The back of the glass may have a black varnish or the supporting case will have a black fabric to "reverse" the image. Like daguerreotypes, most ambrotypes were put in cases. Ambrotypes can be identified by the fact that their images appear negative when examined by light transmitted through the glass. The ambrotype normally appears as a postive image no matter what the angle of view, whereas, daguerreotypes switch from postive to negative depending upon the angle of viewing.

Cabinet Cards: 1866 - ca.1920
A card, usually 6" x 4" inches with an albumen photograph glued to the card.

Cartes-De-Visite: 1860- ca.1900
Mostly small albumen prints glued to cards about 2.5" x 4.5". "Mosiac cards" are many portraits combined on one card. "Cardomania" was popular from 1860 through 1900.

Daguerreotype: 1840- ca.1860
The "dag" has a mirror-like surface - they switch from postive to negative depending on the angle at which they are held. Dags usually are in cases. They were popular mostly from 1840 to 1860.

Lantern Slides: ca.1880’s- ca.1920’s
Positive images on glass which are sometime colored. Be sure not to confuse these with glass plate negatives. In use approximately mid 1880’s-1920’s.

Lithographs (and related graphic processes):
Images created by the planographic printing process. This includes lithography, photolithography, offset printing and other process. Images from books, magazines, public relations brochures, etc. are included in this group. The images created by these processes are not technically photographs, however they do contain images akin to the photograph which are of historical value.

Negatives are reverse images that are used to make "positive prints" Negatives may be paper, glass, nitrate celluose, or other material.

Postcards: ca.1900 - Present
Postcards can either be lithographs (or a related planographic process) or photographs.

Salt Paper: 1840- ca.1900
An image which was developed on treated paper. After 1840, this process was used throughout the nineteenth century. Salt paper images usually have a "warm," or "soft" hue in their appearance. This process is also known as a "Talbotype." "calotype," or "salt print."

35 mm transparency film, often color, and in a paper-based or plastic mount. Should be placed in polypropylene slide sleeve pages.

Stereoviews: ca.1850-1925
Stereoviews, or stereographs, as they are otherwise known, are almost identical side-by-side images of a single scene, viewed simultaneously through an optical device. Popular from ca. 1850 - ca. 1925.

Tintype: 1856- ca.1930
The image is on a thin sheet of blackened (japanned) iron. The tintype is also known as a ferrotype and melainotype. The tintype was used approximately between 1856 and 1930, mostly in use, however 1860-1890.

Archival Supply Vendors

(Note: Inclusion on this list does NOT constitute a specific endorsement of the vendor by the Western Reserve Historical Society. While the historical society has utilized products from each of these companies, it cannot recommend or warrant the products of any company. When contacting these companies request their archival supply catalog.)

Conservation Resources International
800 Forbes Place
Springfield, VA 22151

Gaylord Brothers
PO Box 4901
Syracuse, NY 13221-4901

Light Impressions
PO Box 22708
Rochester, NY 14692-2708