The Archive Lady: Flattening Rolled Documents

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The Archive Lady: Flattening Rolled Documents

Launa from California asks: Currently our family has two documents for our great-grandmother who was postmaster in a small town in Ohio in 1925. They came to me by way of father-in-law’s wife some 25 years ago. They were rolled up in a tub, I have taken digital images of them both, but should I leave them rolled in the tub or have them flattened? What is the best way to store them without the funds for special archiving?

Launa asks a question that a lot of genealogists want to know about when it comes to their rolled documents. Should they be flattened or should they be kept rolled up? It is my professional opinion as an archivist that all rolled documents should be flattened. The act of rolling and unrolling documents can be very damaging to the documents. The creases and bends made in the documents, over time, can cause tears and rips which severely damages the documents.

Rolled Maps, Houston County, TN. Archives
Rolled Maps, Houston County, TN. Archives

Flattening a rolled document can be a fairly simple process. With these step-by-step instructions, flattening documents can be done by the home archivist. Many genealogists have a hard time purchasing archival materials due to the price. It is true that archival materials are two to three times more expensive than non-archival materials. Not everyone can afford to purchase archival materials all the time and it is quite understandable.

With this process to flattened the postmaster documents that Launa has is quite simple and very inexpensive. The materials needed for this process are items from around the house. Possibly the most difficult part of this project will be the time it takes for it to be completed.

The step-by-step instructions for flattening any documents is as follows:

  • Locate a flat surface where the rolled document can be flattened for an extended period of time without being disturbed. Be sure the area that is chosen is not in direct sunlight.
  • Place a bed sheet, table cloth of just some copy paper on the flat surface to unroll the document onto. Do not lay the document directly on the table, use some kind of clean buffer between the table and the document.
  • Gently unroll the document on the flat surface with the front of the document facing down towards the table. Unroll the document slowly and carefully so as to not tear or damage the document. Temporarily place heavy books on the document to hold it down until it is lying flat.
Heavy Books, Houston County, TN. Archives
Heavy Books, Houston County, TN. Archives
  • One at a time, remove the heavy books and at the same time lay another bed sheet, table cloth or more copy paper on top of the unrolled document for protection.
  • Replace the heavy books along all four edges of the document. It is even better if heavy books can be placed on the entire document.
Books Holding Down a rolled Map, Houston County, TN. Archives
Books Holding Down a rolled Map, Houston County, TN. Archives
  • Leave the document in this position for two weeks. After two weeks, check the document and see if it is flat. If the document is not flat, leave it for another two weeks. Repeat this process until the document has flattened. It’s possible this process could take a month or more.
Flattened Maps, Houston County, TN. Archives
Flattened Maps, Houston County, TN. Archives
  • Once the documents are flattened, store them in archival boxes and on shelves.

Flattening documents in this manner is easy, inexpensive and will keep the documents from becoming damaged due to handling.

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Researching in Libraries and Archives: The Do's and Don'ts Legacy QuickGuide

Researching in Libraries and Archives: The Do’s and Don’ts
Legacy QuickGuide 

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If you have a question about researching in archives or records preservation for The Archive Lady, send an email with your question to: melissabarker20@hotmail.com

Melissa Barker - The Archive LadyMelissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

©2017, copyright Melissa Barker. All rights Reserved.