The Archive Lady: Laminating vs. Encapsulation, What’s the Difference?

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Should you laminate family history documents? Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, emphatically says NO to lamination and here’s why!

Georgia in Kansas asks: “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?”

Should you laminate family history documents? Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, emphatically says NO to lamination and here's why!
Example of old letters, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Georgia 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 needs to use. Lamination is not a preservation process and will only damage her documents.

Georgia 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 needs to use. Lamination is not a preservation process and will only damage her documents.
Example of document lamination from the Smithsonian Institute

It is very easy to confuse the terms lamination and encapsulation. Many think they are one in the same. 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.
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 where 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.

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 person’s skin carrying out this 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.

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

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.
Example of encapsulated letters, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Online Archival Supply Stores

Legacy Family Tree Webinars and Quick Guides by Melissa Barker

To properly preserve old family letters without lamination, please watch my Legacy Family Tree Webinar or read my Legacy Family Tree QuickGuide on this subject:

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Webinar

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Webinar
http://legacy.familytreewebinars.com/?aid=1168

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Legacy QuickGuide

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

PDF version: http://legacy.familytreewebinars.com/?aid=1283

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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 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. 

©2020, copyright Melissa Barker. All rights Reserved.

 

One Response

  1. Amanda Dadd

    11 June 2020 11:43 pm

    How would you recommend handling of very brittle documents that have been through a fire but we’re folded at the time. They are 4 x 10 tax receipts but we’re folded in a metal box during the fire about 2×2

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