We've all heard the horror stories about people who have lost everything to flood, fire,
earthquake or other natural disaster. And even if it hasn't happened to them or someone
they know, it's a rare genealogist whose search has not been affected by the fire that
destroyed so much of the 1890 census
or the 1973 fire
that took out roughly 80 percent of 20th century military personnel files held in St. Louis.
But far more dangerous than these major events that capture our attention is the subtle
deterioration that is happening every day.
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Ancestors experts David Rencher and Irene Johnson talk about the impact nature can have on record
Wind and water erode. Dust and dirt cover things. Sun dries out materials. Gravity pulls
matter down and breaks it. Fire destroys. Metal rusts. Silver tarnishes. Paper oxidizes.
Leather dries and cracks. Ink fades. Dirt stains. Photographs fade. Worms and rodents feed
on paper, glue, cloth and leather. Pencil lines smear and rub off. Book bindings crack and
break. Staples and paper clips rust. Transparent tape yellows and cracks. Family records in
our homes are hurt by window sunlight, water pipes flooding a basement, high humidity, a fire,
dirt, car exhaust, and other results of nature's processes.
Even if we could keep our records totally safe from nature's outside agents, they are still in
danger of disintegrating. Many paper products contain acid from the manufacturing process,
in which it is used to break down paper fibers. Cardboard boxes, paper grocery bags, binder
paper, computer paper, manila folders, and cheap scrapbook paper have high acid contents.
Recently, there have been numerous reports on the deterioration of books in the Library of
Congress. Officials regularly appeal for money to deacidify paper in the library's books.
They say 75 percent of the books need treatment but that 25 percent can't be saved. The
books, instead, must be microfilmed and then taken out of use or destroyed.
Inks also contain damaging acid. Photographs have chemicals coating their surface.
These chemicals are in turn subject to interaction with other chemicals and moisture.
Audio and video recording tapes become brittle over time and lost the clarity of their
images or audio recordings. Paper and nonpaper items have short natural lifespans,
which are sped up by carelessness and which can be extended if properly preserved.