5 Tips For Working with Your Family History Artifacts

So you've started your genealogy research and now you want to tackle the physical items relating to your family history. This can be anything from photographs to pins from your grandparents to your own drawings from when you were younger! Many of these items you'll want to preserve. It can be pretty daunting to start the physical side of preserving your family history.

The first major step is to start pulling everything together. After you’ve hopefully pulled together most of your documents, photographs and artifacts for your family history, what do you do with them? These are five basic best practices I adhere to while working with historic materials in the archive.

5 Tips For Working with Your Family History Artifacts by Musings of a Museum Fanatic #genealogy #Familyhistory

No food or drinks 

This is one of the most important things to remember when working with historic items. It is so easy to knock over a cup or smear mustard on your hand during lunch. Then you’ve potentially ruined an irreplaceable piece of family history. Don’t keep food or drinks nearby when you’re working with your items.

Always use pencils 

One thing they teach you when you work with historic materials is that anything you do should be reversible. If you’re planning on numbering your photographs and documents as a way to organize, always use pencil when possible. There are certain photographs that you can’t use pencil on.


When people think of an archivist or museum curator, they picture Nicholas Cage in a tuxedo handling the Declaration of Independence with white gloves. This is a more glamorous image of an archivist at work, but it’s actually correct. Gloves are appropriate when dealing with certain types of materials such as photographs and negatives.

However, gloves aren’t appropriate for dealing with items such as ceramics and glass, because of their slick texture. You can find simple cotton gloves from many different suppliers. Archival supply companies have more fitted styles and some with non-slip nubs for a surer grip.

Washing Hands 

Washing your hands before you handle items, with or without gloves, is extremely important. In many cases it is best practice to handle items with clean, dry hands instead of wearing gloves. For example, if you handle fragile papers while wearing gloves, you’re likelier to tear them.

Washing hands is even more important then. You don’t want to bring in your lunch on your hands and then smudge it on a document. Washing off things like lotion and hand oils is crucial as well.

One thing at a time 

We live in a world of carry-every-single-grocery-bag-up-the-stairs-at-once, so it can be tough to work with one item at a time. This is especially important when dealing with historic items since they can be fragile. If you’re trying to work with a pile of extremely old, brittle papers, you could accidentally break off pieces if you grab the entire pile at once. You could trip while carrying multiple boxes of your family’s artifacts, dropping them all. Take care and work with one item or box at a time, carrying them with both hands!

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