Thursday, September 6, 2012

Displaying Your Family Letters and Photos

I recently ran into an ugly situation. A lady had decided to frame several old letters so that they could be admired and enjoyed by all who entered her home.

She was very specific with the framers, telling them NOT to tape the letters to the backing board.

You guessed it. They were all securely taped to the backing board.

This happened 20 years ago or more, and we are working to find a conservator who can unstick them without damaging the letters.

Which got me to thinking:

How DO you display old letters and photos so that they can be enjoyed but still preserved?

I have some ideas but thought you might have a few ideas to add to the mix as well.

#1 - Don't display them.
This is a highly unsatisfactory solution to me. I believe that having something and not sharing it is very miserly. I guess I have a librarian's mindset when it comes to old letters and photos and documents. What's the point in having them if you don't share them with others and let lots of folks enjoy them?

#2 - Display them individually rather than in groups, as my lady did.
If you only have one or two items to display, then framing each piece individually can be a good choice. Make sure that you use acid-free mat board and paper, choose UV protection glass, etc. There is a great article from the Library of Congress about properly framing your treasures. Check it out - they ought to know!

The downside to this method is if you have more than two or three items, the cost of framing begins to be prohibitive. So let me suggest another method:

#3 - Make good quality copies, display those, and preserve and store the originals.
Now this won't work for everything. Some documents are so fragile that they can't and shouldn't be subjected to the light of a scanner/copier, but then, if they are that fragile, they probably can't and shouldn't be displayed either.

But in my experience, most older photos and documents can safely be scanned. I use a high-quality flatbed HP scanner, make one scan of each side, then properly preserve and store the original in either a box, book, or safe deposit box, depending on the item.

In general, the quality of most copiers will not be satisfactory. That is why I use my scanner. If you don't have a good quality scanner, look for a local photo shop or business that makes professional copies. And if you are at all squeamish about handing over your precious documents, just ask them to let you go behind the magic counter to oversee the process. They ought to understand, even if they sigh and roll their eyes behind your back, the need to verify that every precaution is being taken.

When I scan my documents, I fuss around with the image, cleaning up what I can, brightening or deepening the shadows as necessary, etc. Some folks don't want to do that, and prefer to have the final outcome be as close to the original as possible. My thinking is that if I can make the words easier to read or the image in the photo clearer, why not?! Wrinkles, fold lines, and tears will remain, but I prefer to make it as easy to view as possible.

The added benefit to this method is that you can choose the quality of the paper (thicker, thinner, photo, regular) and if you need to stick it to the backing board, you can since it is a copy of the original. In addition, you can send those digital copies to your various family members and thus share the family heirlooms in a way.

For more information on how to preserve your documents and photographs, see this excellent site:

Now that I have offered my three solutions to displaying your precious family heirlooms I am eager to read your own suggestions or stories or ideas. Feel free to comment below and share.