National Archives and Records Administration: Protecting Your Family Archives

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Interview with Jane S. Long is a Preservation Program Officer with the National Archives and Records Administration  and former Vice President for Emergency Programs at Heritage Preservation.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA),, preserves and makes available records of the work of the U.S. Government and important events in American history. Citizens rely on our holdings for firsthand facts from letters, reports, books, photographs, films, maps, and other primary sources. We have valuable – and often fragile – materials to protect in emergencies.

After the series of devastating hurricanes in 2005, the National Archives formed a Katrina Response Team that traveled to meet with state and local officials about the impact of Katrina on essential records and historic documents. NARA preservation staff provided a workshop on mold damage for cultural institutions in Mississippi, and FEMA asked NARA to provide guidance on rescuing water-damaged records from government agencies in Orleans Parish in Louisiana.

One of the lessons learned from Katrina was just how important archives are to daily life and especially to recovery from disasters. Many birth certificates, court records, property deeds, and licensing records were damaged or lost during Katrina. Photographs and papers documenting the history of communities were swept away in the storm surge.

You, too, have an archive in your home:  official documents like insurance policies, as well as papers, photos, and other items that record and preserve your family’s history. The National Archives offers some general guidelines for protecting your family archives in emergencies:

Plan Ahead

  • Imagine that you might need to evacuate your home and stay away for several weeks.  What are the most important documents and family heirlooms you want to take with you? Make a list of them and pack these items carefully in light plastic bins you can easily carry.
  • Make multiple paper copies of your most important documents; keep one extra set in a safety deposit box and store another with friends or relatives out of town. Be sure to have backups of any scanned papers or photos.
  • Avoid storing your valuable papers, photos, CDs, and fabrics in areas that get too hot or too cold, like attics and basements. These areas are also more vulnerable to water and wind damage.

After the Storm

  • Always put safety first. Don’t enter hazardous areas and do wear protective gear for clean-up. Remember, too, that wet things are heavier.
  • Recognize that many family treasures can be saved, even if they are soaked. The links below offer sound advice on recovery.
  • Prioritize! Focus on recovering irreplaceable items first. You may not be able to save everything.
  • Prevent mold. Try to reduce the humidity and temperature, and air dry valuable papers and treasures gently.

The National Archives and Records Administration offers more detailed response and recovery information online:

Below are links to additional resources to help you prepare for emergencies and recover more quickly:
The Heritage Emergency National Task Force provides information and tools for the general public:

The Emergency Preparedness Initiative of the Council of State Archivists has information on safeguarding records:

Disaster Response and Recovery Guides from the American Institute for the Conservation of Art and Historic Artifacts are available at