Protecting The Past: How Light Affects Aging Documents

In mid-January, an old family album from the 1800s was put up for sale on eBay. The buyer paid $1,000 for it, thinking it contained “pictures of 19th-century aristocrats.” Imagine her surprise when it ended up being Jane Austen’s family album, full of images of the famous author’s nieces and nephews.

Jane Austen was born in 1775, just on the cusp of the Revolutionary War. In order for her family’s photo album to have survived through multiple centuries, it would have needed to be stored in excellent (or very lucky) conditions. Pretty much everything that life depends on to survive and thrive — light, heat, water — are incredibly damaging to old documents and photographs. Though each are detrimental in their own ways, light can be a particularly powerful force.

The Paper’s The Thing

Have you ever been to see the Declaration of Independence? Though it continues to be a national treasure, it is almost completely illegible. This is due to a number of factors, chief of which was the extended display of the iconic document on a south-facing wall; for over 35 years, it was exposed to sunlight.

Normal everyday light changes the chemical composition and physical structure of aging documents: ink fades, paper yellows, and edges become dark and brittle. The acid content of the paper affects the magnitude of damage done as well. For example, using wood pulp to make paper became popular in the late 1800s, but it is a highly acidic material; when exposed to UV light and heat, the papers deteriorate rapidly, becoming yellow and brittle or even ‘shattering’ altogether. Acid-free paper, on the other hand, which has a pH of 7.0 (neutral) or higher (alkaline) is estimated to last at least 200 years under normal storage conditions. Unfortunately, most of your pictures of great-great-great-grandma and her marriage certificate to great-great-great-grandpa will not have been made with acid-free paper.

Hiding From The Light

To prevent your family’s legacy from disintegrating, you need to set up an area protected from such exposure. Ensure that it is clean, dry, and not at risk of flooding — and block out the sun! If you’re going to display any images or documents, be sure to use UV-filtered frames and limit their exposure to light as much as possible.

This doesn’t mean you need to pay for state-of-the-art low-light lightbulbs or live in darkness; there is an entire industry out there to keep your home cool and dark when desired. Between 150 million and 225 million window coverings are sold each year in the U.S., meaning that you can choose something stylish and effective for your home. From heavy draperies to flowing curtains, these products are already designed to block out light — you’re simply expanding their uses when you employ them for the protection and preservation of history.

If you want your family’s album to survive for as long as Jane Austen’s, and in as great shape, you’ve got to start thinking about preservation methods now. Get yourself some blackout curtains so that your children’s children’s children can see what life was like in the grand year of 2019.

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