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A Genealogist In The Archives: Cleaning Dirty Genealogy Records

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Cleaning Dirty Genealogy Records

"31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

DAY #2

Cleaning Documents

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. 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.

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.



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  2. Thanks for this entry. I've inherited several boxes of materials from different relatives over the years. Some have been stored in damp basements, garages and storage units which have encouraged mold and mildew. I've had to set up a work table in my garage to handle these files so I don't contaminate my house. With the garage door open and wearing a mask, I wipe each page with a draftsman brush and use a dirt eraser when needed. I even set up a scanner/copier in the garage to make digital copies. After handling, I put in protective sleeves. If pages are too contaminated to add to my "inside" research files, I leave in a storage tub in the garage with moisture control packets for later reference. But honestly, most of what's in those files are old outdated Family Group Sheets which are not worth saving and so they get purged after comparing to my own research. Thanks for your expert advice and ideas. They're all very helpful!

    1. Sounds like you have a treasure trove of records and you are taking really good care of them! Thank You for reading my blog.