The Archive Lady: Preserving Old Autograph Books

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The Archive Lady: Preserving Old Autograph Books

Maggie in Tennessee asks: “I have some of my family members’ autograph books. They are from when they were in high school and college, and date from the 1920’s and 1930’s. These books are coming apart and I need to do something. What is the best way to preserve and archive autograph books?”

Maggie asks a great question about a type of genealogical record that many of us have in our own collections. Autograph books can be a true treasure for any genealogist and should be preserved and archived so our descendants can enjoy them as well.

Autograph Books, Houston County, TN. Archives
Autograph Books, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Autograph books have been around for centuries. Originally, autograph books were a way for students to collect signatures of classmates and teachers. Most often, students would ask their fellow students and teachers to use the blank pages in the autograph book to record their signature. Many times, a brief message, poem or some other verse would also be written along with the signature. As these types of autograph books became more popular, it was not unusual to find an entire page filled with kind words and other prose ending with the person’s signature. This type of autograph book resembles some of the Twitter and Facebook posts of today.

Autograph Books, Houston County, TN. Archives
Autograph Books, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

The very first step everyone should take when preserving and archiving autograph books is to digitize each page. So many of our original records are deteriorating, even as I write this column. The very best way to preserve the information contained in an autograph book is to scan and digitize each and every page. It is also recommended that the contents be transcribed. Digitization and transcription is becoming the first line of defense for many of our fragile and deteriorating records.

Autograph Books, Houston County, Tennessee Archives
Autograph Books, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

The steps to physically archiving the books are very simple and only require a few archival items that may need to be purchased. These items can be purchased through any online archival materials store (see list below).

  • Place archival tissue paper between each and every page. This will protect each page in case the book comes in contact with moisture and the ink bleeds onto the other pages. After all these years, the ink has set but if the book comes into contact with high humidity or moisture of any kind, the ink can run and bleed.
  • Next, place the book into an archival box lined with archival tissue paper. Be sure the book does not move around in the box because that could cause damage. If you need to, crumple up archival tissue paper and place round the book to keep it from moving. Always store any kind of books, whether they are in an archival box or not, laying down. Storing books standing up can put pressure on the spines and cause damage over time.
  • Always store genealogy records, photographs and ephemera in a cool, dark and dry place. None of us have perfect archival conditions in our homes but we can take steps to have our records stored in the best possible places. Remember to never store records in an attic or basement. Humidity, varying temperatures and sunlight are the worse conditions for documents, photographs and ephemera.
  • I would also encourage Maggie or anyone that has autograph books to share copies, indexes or digital images with the local archive where your family members lived. Autograph books usually include many people from the local area and there may be genealogists that would benefit from finding a family member’s signature in the autograph book.

If you have autograph books like Maggie does, use these simple steps to preserve them for future generations to enjoy.

Online Archival Material Websites

Here is a listing of online archival materials stores. Archival sleeves for letters 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.

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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. 

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