It is amazing the stories and wisdom we can discover in our family’s treasured books, documents and photographs. Passing these objects down from one generation to another is essential to mapping our family histories. The steps we take to care for our family heirlooms is key to their preservation. This article is part of a series by the Preservation and Conservation Laboratory, Heritage Library Division, to provide guidelines on preserving family heirlooms.


What Does “Housing” Family Heirlooms Mean?


When housing your family heirlooms, the items are placed within a barrier that offers protection from the damaging effects of mishandling and environmental factors. Placing your collection items in protective enclosures is an essential preservation approach. Enclosures provide physical support and could also significantly reduce damage from contaminants like dust, fingerprints, pollutants, fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity (or RH) as well as light and UV.
















Protective enclosures can range from covers, boxes, envelopes, folders or sleeves used to store precious family heirlooms or artefacts. It is important that the materials used for housing collections are chemically stable materials so they will not harmfully deteriorate over time by transferring acids or stains to the enclosed objects. Poor quality enclosures could cause damage that cannot be reversed or repaired.


Preparing Items for Enclosures


When preparing to house your heirlooms begin with a clean and clear surface. Wash your hands to prevent the transfer of any dirt, oils, lotions or other potential contaminants. Wearing gloves reduces our tactile sensitivity or manual dexterity which could contribute to damage when handling fragile items. See “Handling Family Heirlooms” [] for more safe handling practices. Take time to observe and examine the items while keeping an eye out for any damage or biological infestation.

  • Remove any of the following which can cause further damage during storage:
  • Loose dust or dirt (by carefully dusting with a soft brush)
  • Rubber bands, staples, paper clips, pins or any fasteners
  • Remove brown paper bags, envelopes, or any acidic wrappings. If the material is relevant to the collection, perhaps as an artefact, place them in a separate enclosure, such as an envelope or folder.
  • Separate any poor-quality paper like newsprint, from higher-quality paper, in order to prevent any possible acid migration


Materials for Enclosures


  • Keep these considerations in mind when selecting enclosures for your family heirlooms:
  • They should be made of chemically stable materials. Some enclosures may even have an alkaline buffer added during manufacture. This buffer helps neutralize acids as they form in the materials.
  • The enclosure should have the necessary durability to adequately support your family heirloom. A weak enclosure could lead to creasing, distortion or tearing while in storage. However, an overly strong enclosure can bring excess space and handling issues with unnecessary weight and bulk.
  • The enclosure should be of an adequate size and weight that poses no damage to your family heirloom. Enclosures should not be so loose so that items toss around inside them, nor so tight that they cannot be removed without squeezing or damaging the collection item.
  • Enclosures should be tailored to the anticipated use of the collection, since heavily used items may require additional protection.















Most protective enclosures are constructed using paper, board or plastic. There are several international standards which provide specifications for materials used to house library and archival collections. The table below highlights the key recommendations for these materials.

Paper & Board


Acid-free = pH of 7.2 – 10

No PVC, cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate or plasticized plastics

Reduced sulphur content

Non-damaging to contents

No post-consumer recycled materials

Uncoated or glazed

Free of lignin, pH buffers, metal particles, acids, peroxides and harmful sizing agents

Polyester, polypropylene, polyethylene, and polystyrene are generally good


There are advantages and disadvantages to both paper and plastic enclosures. Paper buffers fluctuations in humidity, neutralizes some of the airborne pollutants, is easier to label and is cheaper than plastic. However, because it is not transparent, you have to pull the heirloom out of the enclosure to view or use it. This increases the handling of the collection. On the other hand, plastics, being transparent, allow you to view the heirloom without actually having to handle or remove it from the enclosure. Plastic is durable, resistant, inert, stable, and protects from external pollutants. However, the electrostatic cling of plastic causes dust and small particles to get stuck - this could be a problem for very brittle or friable items. Plastics also have low permeability, so they end up locking in those damaging internal chemicals that may off-gas from the collection item.


Best Choices for Flat Documents, Books, Photographs and Oversized Items
















Flat Documents

For highly acidic, fragile, brittle or torn, flat documents and papers interleaving is an option that provides extra protection. Interleaving offers support when lifting or moving the document around. Buffered interleaving paper placed in-between highly acidic documents will help absorb the damaging acids.

Using polyester or polypropylene sleeves provide visibility while offering protection for an item which needs to be referenced or handled frequently. Documents can even be photocopied through the plastic sleeve. Though this may appear similar to lamination, there are key differences. Lamination is an irreversible process using heat-activated adhesives to seal the document between sheets of plastic. It is damaging to the item and should never be used with original family heirlooms.

Folders are best used for sturdier documents and they work well for storing larger quantities of documents together or as a secondary enclosure for items in sleeves or envelopes. However, there should not be too many in a single folder as overcrowding can lead to damaging abrasion and tearing. A good limit per folder would be 10-15 sheets for older documents or as much as 50 sheets for office records. Less is better for more valuable items.

Once documents are in a folder, sleeve or envelope, they can be placed in record boxes for additional protection. It is recommended that spacers or dividers be used in boxes that are not completely full to prevent the folders from sagging or sliding around.


Dust jackets are great options for books with valuable or decorative covers or containing deteriorating leather (red-rot). However, be sure that these protective covers are not glued or taped directly to the books.


















Tying and wrapping books are a good short-term solution for rarely used and less valuable items. The tying tape and wrapper helps to keep loose covers and bindings together until they could be repaired. 4-flap Wrappers or Pamphlet Cases work well for lightweight books and smaller documents.

Boxes, commercially available or custom-made, come in a variety of styles and materials. If a custom-made box is not available, acid-free tissue can be used to fill out the space around the book.


Photographs can be very sensitive to contaminants. So all materials used for housing photographs should pass the Photo Activity Test or be PAT-passed. This is an international standard that tests the chemical reactions between photographs and other materials after prolonged direct contact. Materials that are PAT-passed are considered photo-safe.

If your photos have to be viewed often, you may want to consider using polyester or polypropylene sleeves. Envelopes and folders are good options for sturdier prints and photos.

You can opt to place your photos in an album. Photos should not be attached to the pages of an album using damaging glues or tapes. Instead use plastic sheets or pockets or attach using plastic or paper photo-corners.

Boxes can be used to hold stacks of photographs in their sleeves, envelopes or folders.

Mats and frames provide good support and an aesthetic quality to photographs on display.

CAPTION TO VIDEO: This panoramic photograph of the Constantine Collection is housed in a matting. The photo is supported and protected by its customised enclosure.



When dealing with oversized Items like maps, posters and blueprints it can be a cumbersome procedure. If you have the space for storing these items flat, interleaving into either sleeves or folders are very good options.

Though flat storage is preferred and maybe even considered to be ideal for oversized items, storing them on rolls might be the only option when space is limited. Rolling is suitable for collection items that are still flexible which could endure the rolling and unrolling. The supporting tube should not be smaller than 3 inches in diameter. If the tube is not acid-free a barrier material can be wrapped around it before rolling the items onto them. Acid-free paper or polyester can be wrapped on the outside and secured with tying tape to hold the rolled items together.


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



Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). (1995). Storing Works on Paper CCI Notes 11/2. Retrieved from Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI):

Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). (1996). Making Protective Enclosures for Books and Paper Artifacts CCI Notes 11/1. Retrieved from Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI):

Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). (1997). Matting Works on Paper CCI Notes 11/5. Retrieved from Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI):

Gaylord Archival. (2016). Guide to Collections Care. Retrieved from Gaylord Archival:

Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). (1999). 4.4 Storage Enclosures for Books and Artifacts on Paper. Retrieved from Northeast Document Conservation Center:

Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). (2012). 4.1 Storage Methods and Handling Practices. Retrieved from Northeast Document Conservation Center:

Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). (2019). 4.10 Matting and Framing for Works on Paper and Photographs. Retrieved from Northeast Document Conservation Center:

Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP). (2021). Lamination vs. Encapsulation. Retrieved from Preservation Self-Assessment Program:


Authors: Heritage Library Division, Preservation and Conservation Laboratory, Ms. Danielle Fraser (Library Conservator) and Ms. Alicia Nottingham (Assistant Library Conservator)

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


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