In terms of climate, Alabama perfectly represents the Amerian South: the high heats and humid, muggy conditions are often exemplified in the Heart of Dixie and have become part of the expectations for all southeastern states. The climate itself is categorized as humid subtropical, meaning that the area experiences mild winters, and hot and humid summers; although this is good news for those who love the heat, it’s bad news for all the old photographs, historical documents, and family archives located in the Yellowhammer State.
Protecting The Past
Alabama was founded in 1819 and played a major role in the nation’s Civil War; its capital, Montgomery, was the Confederacy’s first capital. Moving ahead several decades to the mid-20th century, Birmingham became the location for the American Civil Rights protest headquarters. The entire state bore witness to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and is rich in history, which is why we must do all we can to protect and preserve the photographs and records that remain.
Heat and humidity are the two greatest risks to these documents as extreme levels of either can contribute significantly to the deterioration of materials. Heat increases chemical reactions that breakdown media; high relative humidity levels (above 65% rH) encourages both mold growth and pest activity, while low levels (below 15% rH) can lead to desiccation and embrittlement.
Fluctuations in temperature and humidity are just as damaging as extremes: library and archival materials are hygroscopic, meaning they readily absorb and release moisture from and into the air — essentially, they expand and contract depending on the moisture available in the air. This can cause visible damage (such as cockling paper, flaking ink, warped pages and covers, and cracked emulsion on photographs. Because these fluctuations occur as a result of changing seasons, controlling them can be quite difficult.
Fighting The Breakdown
In order to combat the destruction of important family and historical documents, there are multiple changes you can make in your own home. Let’s take a look.
- Location: When dealing with the climate of Alabama, it’s best to avoid storing great-great-great-grandma’s wedding certificate in the basement or attic. Both of these areas are more susceptible to weather- and water-related damage. Instead, find an area that experiences cool, moderate temperatures and a rH level between 30% and 55% — and is away from windows — to protect your past.
- Materials: The best storage materials are acid-free and don’t emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Boxes can help keep sensitive documents dust-free and away from the light, while acid-free file folders are ideal for organizing records.
- Sensors: If you own documents that are extremely important to you, either for personal reasons or because they are of historical relevance, you may want to install sensors in their storage area. Moisture detectors and smoke detectors will let you know the second the environment changes to guarantee you can fix the problem ASAP.
Our history defines who we are, both as a nation and an individual. If we can commit to keeping our homes at rH levels between 30% and 55%, we’ll be able to look back on and share our past with our friends, neighbors, and future generations.