Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, gives her advice on the best ways to preserve a valuable baptism certificate!
Christine in Indiana asks: “I have the original baptismal certificate, in German and in color from 1901, for a half first cousin once removed. It was sent to me folded, with cracks in the middle folds, some tears at the edges. It was mended w/tape on the back, which has come loose in places, and there is a small piece missing from the middle. I know not to try to remove the existing tape, or to add new, but what should I do to prevent additional damage?”
Christine has an archival problem that I suspect many genealogists have with one or more of their documents. Damaged documents are something that archivists and genealogists contend with and can be a challenge. The most important piece of advice I can give anyone who has a damaged document is: Don’t Do Anything You Can’t Undo!
Example Baptismal Record, Courtesy of FamilySearch.org
There are two options that I would recommend for any genealogist that has damaged documents like what Christine has described. The first option is encapsulation, which is the most non-intrusive and easy step to implement.
What is Encapsulation? The Society of American Archivists Glossary of Terms defines encapsulation as: The process of placing a document between two sheets of plastic (usually polyester), which are sealed at the edges, in order to provide support and to protect it from handling and from the atmosphere.
In laymen’s terms, we need to put the damaged document into a protective archival sleeve. Before encapsulation, I would encourage Christine to digitize the certificate to preserve the image of this very important document. Christine mentioned that there was tape on the baptismal certificate and wanted to know if she should try to remove it. If the tape is brittle and comes off easy, then remove it. If the tape is very sticky and will not come away from the document easily, leave it alone. Be sure to remove any metal such as staples, paper clips, straight pins or any type of fastener. Metal can rust if exposed to moisture and rust can literally eat away at the paper your documents are written.
Encapsulated Letters, Houston County, Tennessee Archives
Online archival stores (see list below) have archival sleeves of all shapes and sizes. If you can’t find a size you are needing, reach out to the store and ask them if they have the size you are looking for. Most archival stores are eager to help anyone find what they need.
The second option is contacting a conservator to help with your damaged documents. The first place to look for a local conservator in your area is the state archives where you live. Most state archives have a conservator on staff that could be of help. Another avenue to locating a conservator is the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works where you can search for a conservator in your area to advise and help you with your damaged document.
Damaged documents should be handled with care and their damage addressed as soon as possible so that damage doesn’t get worse. Christine has a very precious baptismal certificate that is a one-of-a-kind document that should be preserved for future generations of family members to enjoy. Encapsulating that document will keep it protected from the elements and from any further damage. To mend the actual damage, reaching out to a conservator is recommended.
Preserving our precious family documents is the only way they will survive and be passed down to the next generations to continue telling our family story.
Online Archival Supply Stores
- Gaylord Archival
- Hollinger Metal Edge
- University Products
- Light Impressions
- Archival Methods
Preserving Old Family Letters
Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Webinar
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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.
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