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A Genealogist In The Archives: Cleaning Dirty Genealogy Records

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Cleaning Dirty Genealogy Records

Do you have records that are dirty? Were they stored in an attic, basement or in a place where they were exposed to dust or soot?

Dirty Records, Houston County, TN. Archives

Many times the records that we have inherited are not in the best of shape. Maybe they have not been stored properly. When we get them, they could be dirty and need some tender loving care.

Cleaning documents is something that archivists do almost on a daily basis. The documents archivist encounter have been stored in basements, attics, near old coal burning stoves or in dusty old garages. After an inventory is done on the collection and the processing starts, the first step is to clean each and every document.

Highway Department Records Stored by a Wood Stove

Many documents just have dust or dirt on them that can be easily brushed away. I recommend using soft brushes to brush away any dust or dirt. I often suggest that home archivists purchase large make-up brushes which does the job quite well and they are very inexpensive. Just make sure the brushes are clean and do not contain make-up. The goal is to remove any loose dirt or dust that could be on the documents. Over time this dust and dirt can damage documents, so it needs to be removed.

Make-Up Brushes

If the documents have more ingrained grime, the next cleaning tool to use to remove the grime is a dry cleaning sponge. This is a specific sponge used in archives. Lightly rub the sponge over the document. The sponge will pick up all the removable dirt and grime and will contain it in the sponge.

These sponges are used daily in the archives to clean all manner of documents.

WARNING: Do not use these sponges on writing that is in pencil.

If these sponges are used on documents with pencil writing, they will erase the writing forever. These sponges can only be purchased from archival materials companies or from

Example of a Dry Cleaning Sponge

Once the documents have been cleaned, they can then be put into archival safe sleeves and filed in archival safe boxes, filing cabinets or in a 3-ring binder.

If you do not feel comfortable doing this process yourself, seek out a records conservator to help you.

Many of our state archives and university archives have professional conservators on staff. Contact them to see if they can assist you with your project or if they can give you a name and contact information of a conservator they trust that can help you.



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  1. I inherited four boxes of family research from a great aunt. It had been passed around to different relatives until it came to me. They had stored them in basements, closets and garages. Not only were they dusty but also filled with mold. I put everything into sleeves and binders to make referencing them easier but my sinuses still get irritated. Any suggestions for mold and mildew contamination?

    1. I wrote an article about dealing with musty smelling records, this might help you:

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