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Archiving My Mothers Things. Part V. New Boxes in our Lives

Sometimes you have to throw out the old boxes to make room for the new. Most of us, when we’ve inherited things, found ourselves with loads of brown cardboard moving boxes…if we were lucky. If luck did not come our way, the treasures (also known as “the stuff”) may have come in assorted old boxes that looked like they were used in the French and Indian War, or maybe just for shipping cabbages in the ’50’s.

This segment of our seriesArchiving My Mother’s Things is about how we “re-box” to keep safe the important things that form clues to our past and, hopefully, inspiration for the future.

If you’ve missed our previous articles, you can catch up.Part I is about facing the task of archiving the things we say we want to keep.Part II is all about realistic objectives. Part III is a guide for finding “the stuff” and getting an idea of how large the task is going to be.Part IV is about going through the old boxes or other storage containers by layers and documenting what is there. For a humorous break, there’s a story about a woodchuck and about how going through “the stuff” can include encounters of all kinds.

(photo credit: Brodart)

All Boxes Are Not Created Equal

If we’re serious about wanting to preserve the documents, the photos, the old textiles, the scrapbooks, old Bibles or other religious texts, and all the other things we think are important to pass on down the generations, we have to understand things like acid. It’s almost like planting a garden for the first time. Instead of reading up on soil PH, it’s the PH in paper. Instead of ordering seed catalogs, we may order catalogs of archiving materials. Instead of knowing our planting zones or standards for organic produce, we learn about standards for what makes paper safe for photographs.

There are some resources out there that can help with that learning. I’ve found Denise Levenick’s book How to Archive Family Keepsakes very helpful. In addition, online sites include:

What is Archival Quality?

The term “archival quality” is tossed around a lot. Not all boxes that are on the market, however, really meet the standards. What does it mean? What makes a good box that will last for a very long time and not damage the contents? Some characteristics are obvious. We know it should be strong and rigid, that it shouldn’t have holes (there go those banker boxes with holes for handles), that the corners need to be strong, and that the lid fits tightly. It should also fit the contents: letter sized documents in an upright document box; a precious family Bible in a book-sized box; small photos in a box made for photos or in a special album. It also has to protect the contents from acid and light. Acid is the enemy.

A paper-based storage container is “archival quality” when it meets these standards:

  • It is “acid-free”. That means it contains no wood pulp products. Most archival quality boxes, sleeves, folders, tissue paper, etc are made from cotton pulp and have a PH of 7 or higher.
  • It is “lignin-free” or “low-lignin”. Lignin is an organic polymer generally made from wood. It causes acid to form in a container. It’s the substance in newsprint that causes it to yellow with age and then go on to harm other things stored with it. “Bleached” papers, like in white stationary, has had the lignin removed.
  • It has been “buffered”. Things get a bit complicated here, but basically it means that the paper has had an ingredient such as calcium carbonate added to neutralize the buildup of acid over time. However, some types of photographs, blueprints, paintings, drawings, etc can be harmed by the buffered ingredient and need to be stored in a non-buffered container. Fortunately the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) developed a test to determine if a container or paper is safe for photos. It’s called the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). If you love technical things, you can read about it over at the Image Permanence Institute. Fortunately the good dealers of archival storage materials for photos will indicate if their product has passed the PAT test. So, whew, we don’t have to get into chemistry ourselves!

Where to Look for Archival Quality Materials

It’s quite possible that there are archival quality boxes & papers available at reasonable prices from major retailers and craft suppliers. The list we’re presenting here includes popular suppliers for libraries, universities, museums, collectors and individuals who are most interested in seeing documentation of “archival quality” before they buy:

So, what’s next?

This is Nancy with Dusty Old Thing and I have a limited budget for this archival project. I’m going to spend time online, and order a few catalogs from the archival materials suppliers. I’ll then determine how many boxes or other materials I need. There’s clearly going to have to be a prioritization of which items are the most important to get into proper storage first. Even with comparison shopping I’m guessing I’ll only be able to afford a few of the boxes now. Others can come later.

Stay tuned…

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