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Preservation vs Conservation: What's The Difference?

Preservation vs Conservation: What's The Difference?

The two words, "Preservation" and "Conservation" can be confusing. Many people use them interchangeably but truthfully they are not the same.

Let's Talk About It!

First, let's look at some definitions:

Preservation: n. ~ 1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property. - 2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment. - 3. Law · The obligation to protect records and other materials potentially relevant to litigation and subject to discovery.

Conservation: n. ~ 1. The repair or stabilization of materials through chemical or physical treatment to ensure that they survive in their original form as long as possible. - 2. The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future through examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education.

(Source: Society of American Archivists Glossary Terms

My easy definition and explanation that I like to give to genealogists for these two terms is:

"To preserve something is to protect it, to conserve something is to fix it".

Many genealogists have made commitments to organizing their genealogical records in 2019. This could mean filing piles of paper, putting photos in archival sleeves and putting everything in an archival box or filing cabinet. This is preservation at its best! You are "keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction" all those wonderful genealogical records that you have in your care. Preserving those records, photographs, memorabilia and family heirlooms for future generations should be part of every genealogist’s commitment to family history. I always encourage genealogists to actively play a part in preserving the family records in their care. It is also important to educate ourselves on the best practices for records preservation. Knowing how to take care of our precious family records will hopefully ensure that they will survive for generations to come.

Knowing what materials to purchase and how to store our records can make a lasting impact on the survival of these records. Obtaining archival materials such as acid free sleeves, archival boxes and archival tissue paper, just to name a few, can mean the difference in the preservation or destruction of our records. I highly recommend purchasing archival materials from reputable archival stores (see list below). It is important to purchase materials that are acid free, lignin free and that have passed the P.A.T. All three of these should be listed on the packaging or in the description of the product. “P.A.T.” is an acronym that stands for Photographic Activity Test. This is a standard procedure to check for potential chemical reactions between materials used to make enclosures and photographs stored in those enclosures. Any archival materials that lists all three of these standards or at least two of the three is an excellent choice to use for your family records.

Now, let's say you have a photograph that is damaged and you want to "repair or stabilize its original form", then you would need to conserve this photograph. Completing conservation work on your own is not recommended.  Most likely, you will want to seek out a professional conservator that specializes in repairing and fixing photographs. Many genealogists don't feel comfortable doing these types of repairs and if you don't have the knowledge of the materials and methods of conservation, then you need to leave it to the professionals. This is also true when it comes to conservation of paper records. You do not want to cause more damage by doing it yourself. Archivists also seek out professional conservators to help with conservation challenges at their facilities. I have had several items at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives sent out to a conservator for repairs with fantastic results. Knowing our limitations and seeking professional conservation help is the best decision when trying to repair a document or photograph.

Where to find a conservator?

I suggest contacting the state archive in the state where you live. In the United States, all 50 states have a state archives. Most of them have a professional conservator on staff that works with the records in their facility. Some of these conservators will also take on projects from the public. If they do not accept projects from the public, they should be able to give you a reference name and contact information for one they recommend.  There could be different conservators for different mediums such as one for only photographs, one for only documents, etc.

I would also suggest going to the website:

American Institute for Conservation ( They have a section entitled "Find a Conservator" where you can locate someone in your area to help with your conservation problem. You can search for a conservator by “Geographic Location” by entering your postal code and choosing a specific mile radius to search. The site will give you names of conservators in your area that can be of help. There is also an option to choose what type of medium you need help with such as books and paper, textiles, electronic media, etc. There is also a search feature where you can locate a conservator by a specific name. If you know the name of a conservator or were given a name by the state archives, you can search for them. There is even an option to locate a conservator that is willing to travel to where you are to perform the necessary conservation work.

Now you know the different between Preservation and Conservation. I encourage all genealogists to actively preserve your genealogy research, documents, photographs and family heirlooms.

Archival Stores

Gaylord Archival

Hollinger Metal Edge

University Products

Light Impressions


Archival Methods

Print File Archival Storage

To learn more about archives and genealogy visit the Archives section of the Legacy Family Tree Webinars site.

Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, is a Certified Archives Manager currently working as the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist. She is also a professional genealogist and lectures, teaches and writes about the genealogy research process, researching in archives and records preservation. She has been researching her own family history for the past 28 years.


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Thank you for your helpful information. As I'm preserving the archival materials in my possession, I'd like to 1) catalog them in a database and 2) post them online for family members. Can you suggest a personal-size software database (such as Past Perfect for museums) for cataloging, and online sites to post photos and pdfs, open by invitation only? As cousins around the country, we'd like to find a site where we can each upload images of our piece of a whole collection. Thank you.

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