Each family is as unique as the stories and heirlooms passed down from one generation to another. You may be surprised by how much you learn about your family’s history when you explore your treasured books, documents, certificates and photographs. Caring for these objects is a key part of ensuring the preservation of our family history. This article is the first in a series by the Preservation and Conservation Laboratory, Heritage Library Division, which will provide guidelines on preserving family heirlooms.


How you touch, hold and move your family heirlooms can impact their deterioration. Here are some tips for safely handling your family heirlooms.


Gloves on or off?

Should gloves be used when handling family heirlooms? Wearing gloves was generally seen as a good preventative measure for protecting collection materials from the dirt and natural oils of our hands. However, gloves reduce your tactile sensitivity or manual dexterity and you can cause damage when handling fragile items. So now, it is understood that it is better to handle collection items with freshly washed hands. Do not use lotions or hand sanitizers before handling collection materials. However, there are some exceptions about wearing gloves. For photographs and film it is recommended that you use gloves as these materials are very susceptible to our skin oils.


Also be sure to use gloves as part of your personal protective equipment (PPE) when dealing with hazardous or allergenic substances like mould or dust.  


Handling Books

While the structure and materials of books varied over time, applying these simple measures when you use them can help extend the life of your bound collections:

  • Use clean hands
  • Keep food and drinks away
  • When removing from the shelf, do not pull a book out by its head or by its endcap. You want to either push the two neighbouring books back in order to grab the spine in the middle, or stretch a finger along the top edge of the book and rock it forward in order to grab the spine.


Do not pull a book by its endcap. Instead grab the spine by its sides.


  • Use a paper bookmark. Do not turn the opened book upside down onto a table or fold the corners in order to mark your reading spot. Use paper rather than leather or metal bookmarks which could stain or tear the paper.
  • Provide soft support for viewing fragile books. It’s important that you do not force open a binding, as this would cause the spine to break. Book supports can range from foam-shaped or plastic wedges to a pillow to even as simple as a roll created from a clean dry cotton towel. These options help gently cradle brittle bindings.
  • Opt for overhead scanning or imaging for copying the pages of a fragile book. Opening a book flat unto a photocopier can damage the spine. If a book must be photocopied, use a photocopier with an edge platform that allows a gentler opening than one that has to be opened at 180 degrees.


Handling Documents

As with books, keep food and drinks away from your letters, certificates and other treasured documents. Ensure your hands are clean when accessing documents and work on a clean clear surface. Use folders to keep documents together rather than attaching fasteners like paper clips, staples, or rubber bands—all of which can cause damage. If folders are not feasible, use a non-damaging fastener like plastiklips.



Handling Photographs

There are several things to remember when handling photographs:

  • First and foremost eating, drinking or smoking are prohibited near photographs.
  • In order to reduce the handling of originals, create a copy or a surrogate of a photo whenever it is possible.
  • While working with your photographs it is advised to work on a clear, clean flat surface. You can cover the surface with cheap plain paper (e.g. newsprint is a good surface to work on).
  • Be sure to look at your photographs before handling. Be alert for clues about their condition before you even touch the items - so you know exactly how to handle them.
  • It is recommended that you use gloves or very clean hands when handling photographs. Use both hands and hold the photograph just along the edges. Avoid touching the image surface. Your hands can leave fingerprints which overtime can obscure the image (as seen in the photo mentioned in ‘Gloves on or off?’).
  • Do not use paperclips, staples or rubber bands with your photographs.
  • Whenever you are carrying or lifting photographs it is recommended that you use support boards. You want to fully support photographs. Don’t allow them to bend or hang as you are handling them.
  • Carefully remove the photograph from its protective enclosure.


Handling CDs & DVDs

CDs and DVDs are optical discs often used to store digital copies or scans of photographs, documents and videos. These composite materials are read by a drive or computer using a laser. The transparent polycarbonate exterior protects the data storage layers at the centre of the optical disc. So anything that affects the polycarbonate material could prevent the laser from correctly reading the data layer. Here are a couple of tips for handling your CDs and DVDs:

  • Handle your discs only on the outer edges or plastic hub at the centre
  • Do not touch the surface of the disc
  • Occasional small scratches have little to no effect, however multiple deep scratches can make a disc permanently unreadable


For more information about caring for your collections view the recordings of the Preservation Webinar Series (link to Video Resources:

To discover more, follow the Heritage Library Division on Facebook @NALISHLDTT (link to Facebook: or email



American Institute for Conservation. (2021). AIC & FAIC Learning: For the Public. Retrieved from American Institute for Conservation:

Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). (2020). Basic Care of Books – Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 11/7. Retrieved from Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI):

Northeast Document Conservation Center. (2012). Storage Methods and Handling Practices. Retrieved from Northeast Document Conservation Center:

Smith, K. (2017). Taking Care Of Your Family Heirlooms. Retrieved from National Archives:

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. (n.d.). Handling Paper Artifacts: Preservation Do's and Don'ts. Retrieved from Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute:

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. (n.d.). Taking Care. Retrieved from Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute:


Authors: Heritage Library Division, Preservation and Conservation Laboratory, Ms. Danielle Fraser (Library Conservator) and Mr. Kareem De Suza (Library Technical Assistant)

Copyright of photographs and videos held by NALIS, reproduction and distribution without written permission is prohibited.


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