The Archive Lady: Why Genealogists Should NEVER Laminate Genealogical Documents

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The Archive Lady: Why Genealogists Should NEVER Laminate Genealogical Documents

Lisa in Nebraska asks: “I enjoyed your webinar Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist. I have a bunch of old family letters and my preservation plan is to laminate them and encapsulate them so that they are protected. In your opinion, is this a good way to preserve old family letters and other genealogical records?”

This week at Abundant Genealogy, Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, explains why genealogists should NEVER use lamination as a means to preserve documents.
Example of old letters, Houston County, TN. Archives

Lisa asks a very good question and one that I take very serious as an archivist. I applaud her for taking steps to preserve her precious old family letters but lamination is NOT the process that she should use. Lamination is not a preservation process and only serves to damage documents.

Example of document lamination from the Smithsonian Institute
Example of document lamination from the Smithsonian Institute

Lamination or Encapsulation: Is There a Difference?

It is very easy to confuse the terms lamination and encapsulation. Many think they are one in the same when, in fact, they are very different:

  • Lamination: A process in which plastic sheets are adhered to the document itself by using heat to melt the plastic sheets to the actual document. The document cannot be easily removed from the laminated sheets. The laminated documents are very shiny in appearance.
Example of shiny lamination from the Smithsonian Institute
  • Encapsulation: A process in which documents are sandwiched between stable, archival plastic sheets. The sheets are sealed around the document by static electricity. Nothing is directly attached to the document or melted to the document during this process. The document can be easily removed from the plastic sheets, if desired.

Lamination is one the most destructive processes anyone can do to historical or genealogical documents. Lamination is not used by archivists today to preserve records or any other paper documents because it is so destructive. When the process of laminating first came on the scene it was widely used by archives from the 1930’s to the 1970’s when no one knew the full extent of the destructive nature of this process. Large archives such as the National Archives and the Library of Congress were laminating documents in earnest in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Since the 1970’s, archives have been delaminating documents as fast as they can to stop the damage that has wreaked havoc in many records collections.

“Don’t Do What You Cannot Undo”

In the archives world we have a saying “Don’t do anything to a document that you cannot undo.” Lamination is one of those things that you cannot undo without causing further damage. Here are some other reasons why you do not want to laminate your family records:

  • Lamination is almost impossible to reverse without causing great risk to the document itself.
  • The lamination process actually melts into the paper fibers of the document which makes delaminating difficult to almost impossible to accomplish.
  • Removing the lamination requires the use of solvents and chemicals that could potentially damage the inks, the paper or the skin of the person performing the remediation process.
  • The plastics used in lamination, usually cellulose acetate, are themselves inherently unstable and over time will deteriorate and cause more damage to the documents.
  • Delaminating documents can be extremely costly to have done and could potentially damage the documents further. Anyone considering delaminating their documents should consult with a professional conservator.

Protecting our family records from deterioration and damage should be one of the first priorities as a genealogist. Laminating documents is not the way to go and should never be considered a preservation method.

Approved Encapsulation Methods and Materials

Using archival plastic sheets, archival file folders and boxes is the best way to preserve old family letters and any other original documents in your genealogical collections.

Example of encapsulated letters, Houston County, TN. Archives

Archival Material Websites

Here is a listing of online archival materials stores. Archival tissue paper and boxes can be purchased at any of the following online archival stores. They all have online catalogs and paper catalogs that can be sent to your home. Also, be sure to sign up for email notifications because they periodically have sales and will send out email notifications.

Legacy Family Tree Webinars and Quick Guides


To properly preserve old family letters without lamination, please watch my Legacy Family Tree Webinar Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist or read my Legacy Family Tree QuickGuide on this subject:

family letters webinar

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Webinar

Preserving Old Family Letters

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist
Legacy Quick Guide
Kindle version:
PDF version:

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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa 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.


One Response

  1. Connie

    8 September 2017 12:13 pm

    Really good article, thank you. How long can I expect a laminated article to last once its been done. I have laminated a couple of things and wondered how long they will last. Thank you.

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