I silently cringed when a friend told me they had laminated an important family document. When I was twenty, I would have also believed this was the way to protect and preserve important documents and pictures for future generations. Now I know better.
Laminating is easy and more accessible and affordable than ever before, so I understand why individuals believe it is a great way to preserve documents. After all, you can share laminated items with everyone and they won’t get wet from spills, torn or stained.
However, time is not kind to paper sandwiched between two sheets of mylar plastic that have been heated to stick together and to the paper. Eventually the sealed document will discolour, the writing will blur and the paper fibres will breakdown. The only way to prolong the life of laminated documents is to de-acidify the paper before lamination. Over time the mylar plastic will curl and warp.
Personally, I’ve done more damage using tape than anything else. The scrapbooks I proudly created in my late teens and early 20s reveal the huge mistake of using transparent tape. Print from newspapers and pens have been absorbed by the sticky—acidic—side of the tape. Much of what lies beneath the tape is now unreadable after twenty years. In fifty years, it will all be just a blur. Archival tape is available, but costs more than your regular brand.
As a child, I glued everything into scrapbooks. The clear glue was cheaper and readily available because it was purchased for school. Anything left from those days is still in pretty good shape, much better than if it had been taped. However, the acid in liquid white glue will eat away at the paper. Non-acidic glue is widely available.
Paperclips should never be used to fasten paper together because of the obvious bending of the paper. Steel paperclips will rust over time and stain the paper.
One of the best ways to preserve documents and photos is by placing them in page protectors. Choose the ones made of polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene. Page protectors are open at the top, allowing the paper to breath. Pages can be organised in three-ring binders for additional protection and easy access.
Documents that are very old can be preserved using a process called encapsulation. The documents are placed between two larger sheets of archival-quality polyester plastic sheets. The plastic sheets are then secured together by using non-acidic tape. The documents are safe from bending, tearing and staining and can be easily removed if the need arises.
Quality copies of all important documents should be created and stored in a separate location from the original. If tragedy strikes, everything is not lost. Copies can also be used for demonstration purposes, for sharing with other researchers and for display. Sharing copies instead of originals whether at home or away decreases the chances of the original being lost.