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The Heritage Archivist - Location

In real estate, the tongue-in-cheek phrase "location, location, location" is often used to describe the three most important considerations in buying a house.  The same is true for the heritage archivist.  It makes little difference how you prepare and package an item if you end up storing it on a poor location.  When we talk about location, we are referring to an area within your home.  We are not suggesting off-site locations, although that can be an option.

There are several considerations in picking a location, of which the two most important are temperature and humidity.

Temperature
A key concept to understand is that deterioration of an item, such as a paper document, is a chemical process.  Acids, oxygen from the atmosphere, and the like can attack paper fibers, making them brittle or discolor, for example.  Heat (temperature) will accelerate a chemical reaction.  This has been known since the 19th century.  Chemists regularly use this knowledge to speed up chemical processes.

What this means is that higher storage temperatures reduces the life of an item.  A rule of thumb is that every ten degrees increase in temperature halves the life of an item.  In thinking about your house, this suggests avoiding your attic, where summertime temperatures can get quite high.  Likewise, don't store items near a warm heating appliance, such as a furnace.  Think about where you would be most comfortable, year round, and store your items there.  A bedroom closet, under a bed, or a hutch in your dining room.

Another fact to keep in mind is that the effects of temperature are cumulative and cannot be reversed.  In other words, exposing an item to high temperature ages it faster, and the aging it experienced at that high temperature is permanent and cannot be reversed.  So removing items from your attic to your bedroom does not reverse the aging that has occurred, but only slows down future aging.

You might be tempted to store an item in a freezer (colder is better), but don't.  Special packaging is needed by a professional archivist to prevent freezer burn.  Likewise, you might consider a basement as a good location, since it tends to be cooler.  It can be, but keep the next topic in mind.

Humidity
A friend had books stored in his basement that belonged to his mother.  In looking at them after a couple of years he noticed little green and grey spots on the pages.  Unfortunately, his books were the victim of his damp basement - mold!  High humidity can cause mold and fungus to grow.  Removing them (if at all possible) takes a professional conservator or archivist.  The ideal humidity is 30% to 50% relative humidity.  If you have a dry basement (i.e., not damp), then it's ok to use.  Otherwise, stick to your living quarters.  Although it should be understood to avoid high humidity area in your living quarters, like a bathroom or laundry room.

Miscellaneous
While temperature and humidity are your main concerns, there are other potentially damaging conditions lurking around. 
  • Sunlight: UV rays from sunlight can fade photos, dyes in textiles, printing and the like.  Avoid prolonged exposure to direct sun.
  • Pests: Insects and mice can destroy items in little time.  Keep your archival storage boxes away from areas likely to get infested.
  • Airborne: Cleaning sprays, fireplace smoke and ash, and cooking fumes can contain harsh chemicals or particulates that cause damage.  Don't let them contact your items.
So remember to think "location, location, location" when archiving.  What's best for a person is often what's best for your heritage archives.

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