Preserving Family Archives | Las Cruces History |

You’ve inherited a heavy stack of papers or a couple of boxes filled to the brim with photographs. Or you’ve collected this and that from a long career and an even longer life. You may debate whether there is useful information for future generations to glean from the potentially historical material, and you’re not sure how exactly to preserve the documents safely — or if you should at all. The New Mexico State University (NMSU) Library Archives and Special Collections might be the perfect place to start.

“It’s important for us as archivists to help people preserve what they have, whether it comes to us as a collection or not,” said Dennis Daily, NMSU Library Archives and Special Collections department head.
“We’re open to the public,” added Jennifer Olguin, Rio Grande Historical Collections archivist. “You don’t have to be involved in the campus community to come to visit us.” Both Dennis and Jennifer have practical tips to care for documents at home before you call or visit.

Make the Documents Comfortable

“You want materials to be at a steady temperature and at a fairly low humidity because those two factors can be particularly damaging to paper,” said Dennis. He recommends 70 degrees or lower, but stability in temperature is key, so don’t pack things away in an outside shed, garage, or attic.

“Think about whether it’s an environment that you feel comfortable in. Then your documents will be pretty happy,” he said. “If you wouldn’t want to go spend the night in your 120-degree garage, you don’t want to put your valuable documents there.”

Strip Documents of Hazards

archives“Get photographs out of old sticky photo albums, the ones with cellophane covering. Glue is notorious for damaging materials,” said Jennifer. “You’ll want to carefully remove staples and paper clips and find acid-free folders — which can be bought online — to keep the material in.”

Jennifer explained that you should consider removing organic material, like locks of hair or flowers pressed into books, and keep it separate to prolong the life of paper-based material.

Dennis and Jennifer also explained that light could be damaging to documents, so if you keep an older photograph on a wall or side table that gets a lot of light, consider making a copy for display and tucking the original away.
“Photographs have chemical properties that are affected by exposure to light, but the light can also damage paper, so we keep our materials in dark storage,” said Dennis.

Dealing With Digital Files

Consider that plenty of photos are now being carried around with you on your phone or go into the electronic “cloud” for storage. “Those photographs are ‘born digital,’ in that they’ve never existed anywhere else except as ones and zeros,” said Dennis. The archival world is challenged to figure out what that will mean for future preservation for upcoming generations.

“People come in with jump drives, and we have to ensure that we get that content off the jump drive and put it into our servers and make sure there’s a backup of a backup just in case something gets manipulated or lost,” said Jennifer. “But for the future users, we have to have in mind, how are we going to preserve the information in electronic format?”

Dennis agreed, noting, “Electronic information is a lot more fragile than physical materials. It’s much easier for an electronic file to be here today and gone tomorrow.” Preserving electronic files is filled with challenges: changing technology, migrating file formats, corruption of the data over time, paying indefinitely for online cloud storage, and even access.

“I think about this myself all the time, too, because I have so many family photographs that I’ve made with my phone. I make sure that my phone automatically backs up things to the cloud,” said Dennis. “But there are no guarantees that the files will always be available. And what would happen if I died tomorrow? Do my kids know that all our family photographs are in my Google account? Will they be able to get to my Google account? Do they know my password? Or will all those memories be lost?”

Record Information That Only You May Have

“Remember to try and identify as much as possible in a photograph or even a document,” said Jennifer. “Who is in the photo? When was it taken? Even if it’s just the decade, it can help in the future. Another important piece: Where was the photograph taken?”

Detailed information about the material will be the best way for researchers and archivists to curate historical information. Archives, including NMSU’s, focus on collecting within a specific scope, meaning a region, certain subject matter, or type of material. For example, the NMSU Archives typically does not take artifacts — such as clothing or trinkets — which are better housed in museums, and archivists make sure the items it does take fit into its collecting mission.

“Our scope is regional — Southern New Mexico, the U.S./Mexico border region, and the Southwest more generally. If someone comes in with historical documents, whatever they’re giving needs to fit our collecting scope,” said Dennis. “If it doesn’t, then we’re going to make recommendations to them and help them find an appropriate home. If the material relates to, say, Civil War-era Kansas, then we’ll help them find an appropriate archive or museum in that region.”

Get in Touch With the Magicarchives

Jennifer recalls the moments that are the best for any archivist: when descendants call about something that the archives has from ancestors they never knew. Or, as happened at the Border Archives Bazaar — a yearly event in which the NMSU Library participates — visitors had a glimpse of the more recent past.

“A husband and wife looked through a collection of yearbooks, and they happened to flip through to a page where her husband saw a picture of the wife’s mother,” said Jennifer. “It was a photo they had never even known about.”
“Our archives really reflect this community’s history and cultural heritage,” said Dennis. “Nearly all of our collections were donated by families and organizations in our region and so the content in our materials belongs to everyone in this community. It’s all freely accessible to anyone who is interested, anyone who wants to come and discover our rich past and hold that history in their hands.”

New Mexico State University Library Archives and Special Collections
Located on the fourth floor of the Branson Library on the NMSU campus, free parking e-permits online for visitors. Best advice: Schedule a visit to their research room.

Written and photography by Cassie McClure

Originally published in Neighbors magazine.

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