(+) Rescue Old Photos and Documents: Make a Humidification Chamber

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

Old documents, newspapers, and photographs are often improperly stored. They may have been rolled or folded for years. By the time that you, the family historian, find these items and wish to view them, the documents may be damaged if forced open. Old paper, especially that manufactured after 1885, becomes brittle with age. This will be doubly true if the document has been stored in a very low-humidity environment, such as an attic. Old or fragile items may even crack and crumble if not handled properly.

The primary problem is that old paper and photographs that have not been stored properly will become dried out over the years. Dryness creates brittleness, which then causes damage when the item is not handled properly. Have you ever seen someone tenderly – but wrongly – try to uncurl an old photo or unfold an old news clipping, only to see it crumble in their hands? It’s a sad sight.

Introducing moisture through carefully controlled humidification can return the paper back to condition where it may be handled. Humidification, followed by careful flattening, can allow documents to be stored properly in a flattened state. A humidification chamber is an important tool for slowly adding humidity to dried-out materials.

Do not attempt to open brittle documents!

CAUTION: Handling of high-value documents and photographs is best left to professionals. If the document or photograph you have is truly irreplaceable, hire a trained and experienced archivist or preservationist to do the work. In this article, I will describe handling procedures for the more commonly-found documents and pictures that are not candidates for the (expensive) services of a professional.

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