How to Save Your Private Papers for Posterity

How to Save Your Private Papers for Posterity
Private Papers
Some of Edward Wilson’s (1813 – 1878) private papers preserved at the State Library of Victoria

I’m working on a new book I’m hoping to release before Christmas, so over the last few weeks I’ve spent many happy hours snooping about in 150 – 175 year old private papers. Letters, notes, drawing – someone thought to save them for posterity

My book concerns one of Victoria’s most significant men; Edward Wilson (1813 – 1878). He’s the man who took the Argus from a libelous four page pamphlet to an internationally well respected broadsheet newspaper.

And donated a load of money during his life, and after his death, to establish schools and hospitals for Victorian citizens.

On the one hand, he was active in the Acclimatisation movement, a movement concerned with spreading English flora and fauna throughout the world (oops), but on the other very concerned about the welfare of local Aboriginal tribes (a man so far ahead of his time that he’s ahead of my time too).

He never married, had an active correspondance with a bunch of relatives, and other notable luminaries including Edward Lear, William Thackeray and English PM Edward Smith-Stanley (14th Earl of Derby). None of which I would have known without access to his private papers.

Provenance of Private Papers

And on a related note, during a recent illness, I was binge watching Antiques Roadhshow (UK Version), and the spin off Fake or Fortune? and something I just kept hearing again and again was the importance of provenance.

Or to put it another way, making a record of the source of origin.

In the Fine Art context, this mainly comes down to signing your work, no matter how famous you are, and providing receipts for your sales. It also comes by adopting particular colours, brush strokes and subjects over the coiurse of your lifetime that result in a coherent body of work. Even if that includes blue, cubist or ink phases.

Similarly, in writing, it comes from marking your copyright on your manuscripts, developing a unique author voice through continual writing, and expounding on the same overarching themes. Though as the author, you’ll rarely notice this about the words you put down.

It also comes from developing a Presence, as manifested through your signature wardrobe choices, so you always look like you when you’re portrayed in images. Some writers use hats or gloves, Picasso famously wore a Breton top, and Dali had his moustache.

And from my research point of view, including dates, and details about senders and receivers so I know what I’m looking at!

Saving Digital Files for Posterity

If Edward Wilson was alive today, the papers I’m looking at would more likely be electronic, and weirdly, more easily lost than a box of paper. Mainly due to:

  • Technology change,
  • Internet Service Providers going out of business, or
  • Purging records so you don’t have to pay for extra storage.

The National Archives of Australia, recommend converting digital files to long-term formats, and offer a list of suggestions. It’s a good a place as any to start, but you’ll need to stay on top of the formats to ensure they’re still readable as time goes by.

While you might not plan on donating your emails, spreadsheets and word douments to your country’s library or national archives, you might want to think about preserving them for your grandchildren and their grandchildren.

J. Daniel Sawyer suggests looking for software that’s more of a tool, and less of an ecosystem so you’re not forced to upgrade every time it does. In particular, he recommends open standard formats such as LibreOffice, epub, .pcm, .gimp, .tiff. hidef .png.

Saving Papers for Posterity

Preserving Paper Records is partly about choosing the right materials for longevity in the first place, and partly about preserving them once they’re written.

Choosing the Right Paper

If, like me, you prefer analog systems, you’ll have paper based journals, typed or handwritten letters and notes. In which case, The Archives suggests paper that is stong, opaque, white enough to provide a strong contrast with the text, and alkaline enough to withstand the acidity of pollution and finger marks. And they offer a “Q Infinity Mark” for papers that meet the standards they recommend. Though you’ll probably need to check the specifications of your notebooks to see how they stack up.

And there’s no point using the right paper without the right ink, so look for archival ink for your pens, stamp pads, and printers.

Preserving the Paper

It’s too late to change the physicality of Grandpa’s war journals and letters. Here’s what The Archives suggest you need to do, to prevent further deterioration:

  • Wash you hands before you touch them, and for preference use cotton or powder free surgical gloves. Handle them carefully.
  • Use a rigid card to support the papers when you move them, and if they’re very delicate, to store them.
  • Place a piece of archival tissue between pages to protect them from the other pages – both chafing and bleed through from the markings.
  • NEVER allow food or drinks near them.
  • Store them in a dark place, between 18 and 20°C, at 45 – 50% humidity.
  • Keep the area clean and clear to deter rodents and insects.
  • Wood and particle boards release vapours that may damage papers, so powder-coated metal shelved are best.
  • Archival quality corrugated cardboard boxes add a layer of protection, as do the proprietary plastics Mylar or Melinex.

What’s Worth Preserving for Posterity

Well, that one’s mostly up to you.

The State Library Victoria’s instagram feed posts images of letters and journals among other things, and some of them are fascinating, though it has to be said they won’t necessarily take your stuff off your hands.

But it is one way you can control the information that’s out there about yourself long-term. And it’s a little easier than working out how to preserve your social media feeds for future generations.

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