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.

Vertical Files: Like a Box of Chocolates

Vertical Files: Like a Box of Chocolates

In the movie Forrest Gump, the main character, Forrest Gump, makes the statement “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” In the world of genealogy, vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Vertical files are a fantastic genealogical record source that no genealogist should overlook. This particular collection of records could contain just about anything.

The Society of American Archivist Glossary of Terms defines Vertical Files as: “Materials, often of an ephemeral nature, collected and arranged for ready reference.” Vertical files are sometimes called Subject Files or Morgue Files. These records can be located at a library, archive, historical society or genealogical society. Anywhere records are collected and preserved, there could be a collection of vertical files.

Knowing how vertical files are compiled will help you better understand this record set and how to use the records for your genealogy research. Most, if not all, items found in vertical files are donated by individuals or organizations. Records found in vertical files can range from original documents to photocopies, from unique and one-of-a-kind records to mass publications. Ephemera and newspaper clippings are some of the most popular types of records that can be found in vertical files.

Vertical Files
photo courtesy of the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Vertical files are stored in file folders and then put into filing cabinets. They are labeled with either a surname or a subject name. Once the records are in the file folder and labeled, they are then placed in filing cabinets in alphabetical order. In most archives, there will be an index listing of what is contained in those particular archived vertical files. It is important that you ask the archivist for that index. The index could be in paper form or it could be located on an in-house computer. Keep in mind that a vertical file index will most likely not contain a listing of each and every document that is located in each file folder. So, if you see a surname or subject name that you think might help you, ask for that file to be retrieved so you can review the contents.

So what can be found in Vertical Files….

Newspapers Clippings

One of the most popular documents to be found in vertical files is newspaper clippings. In fact, some vertical file collections in some repositories are compiled of nothing but newspaper clippings. These clippings could be about anything that was found in the newspaper and cut out to be saved. The clippings could be of obituaries, birth announcements, engagement announcements, marriage announcements or anything of note that was published in the local newspaper. Newspaper clippings found in vertical files can be a true find for those of us that have found that some newspapers were not saved and microfilmed. If we're lucky someone clipped items from those missing issues and they are located in the vertical files collection.


If you are like me and have very few examples of letters or postcards for my ancestors, you might be lucky enough to find these types of records in vertical files. Correspondence of all kinds can be found in vertical files. When an archivist is presented with a donation of a handful of letters, they are usually processed and placed in vertical files. If the donation is larger, they are usually processed into the Manuscript Collections of the archives. Finding a handwritten letter, post card, Western Union Telegram or some other note in the vertical files from or to our ancestors can be a true find.

Family Group Sheets and Family Histories

Handwritten or typed family histories are a common find in vertical files. Many genealogists have documented their family history in a narrative form and then donated a copy to the local archives where their ancestors lived. Family Group Sheets could also be found in vertical files. These are also donated by genealogists in the hopes that other researchers coming through the facility will find their family history work and make a connection. I always encourage genealogists to donate copies of their family group sheets and family histories to local archives. Be sure to include your name and contact information so other researchers can contact you.


If you are like me, you are always looking for photographs for your ancestors. I have very few photographs dating back before 1930 of my ancestors. The vertical file collections may just be where they can be located. Many archives will place photographs in their vertical files and file them by family surname, place name or by the subject of the photograph. Not only could there be photos of your particular ancestors but there could be photos of the church they attended, the school they went to and even the home where they lived. However, be aware that many archives do not place their photographs in vertical files. Photographs can also be found in Manuscript Collections or in a larger Photograph Collection within the archive.

These are just a few of the numerous types of records that can be found in vertical files. When I visit any repository that has genealogical or historical records, at the top of my to-do list is to check the vertical files. I hope the next time you are at an archive you remember to check the vertical file collections because you never know what you might find.


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.


Loose Records, What Are They?

Loose Records, What Are They?

Genealogists are always on the lookout for new records. As the archivist of the Houston County, Tennessee Archives, one type of record that I find genealogists are unfamiliar with is loose records (also referred to as loose papers).

Archives, libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies and even museums have bound record books. These bound record books contain such information as County Court Minutes, Marriage Records, Deeds, Last Will and Testaments and much more. Genealogists are usually well versed in finding, requesting and researching in these types of bound records.

Bound Records
Bound Records. Photo courtesy of Melissa Barker of the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

There is another type of record source that you should be doing genealogy research in and accessing. This record source is loose records/loose papers. The name of these records is very telling. In most cases, they are literally “loose” documents or papers that are not bound in any type of book. These loose records are also archived differently from the bound records.

Loose records are considered the “working papers” or “accompanying paper work” to the records recorded in a bound volume. Loose records, many times, can hold additional information and fantastic discoveries for the genealogist that are not found in the bound volumes.

Some bound volumes that have loose records associated with them include:

Court Records

The court system produces bound volumes of minute books and docket books. Most of the time, the courts also produce boxes of loose records. For instance, each court case is usually recorded in a bound volume. The case that is recorded in the bound volume includes the pertinent information about the case and how the case was resolved. The loose records associated with a court case contain such records as affidavits, subpoenas, witness statements, photographs and sometimes even actual evidence. These loose court records can be archived in their original sleeves in archival boxes or the records are removed from the sleeves, flattened, cleaned and put in archival file folders. The loose court records are something every genealogist should seek out when doing research in court records. Don’t just settle for the information that is recorded in the bound volumes.

Marriage Records

Genealogists are very familiar with marriage records that are found in bound books. We can usually locate the marriage license, marriage bond and the marriage return. Once we have found these records, we think we are done. In many cases, this is not true. Like the court records, marriage events could have loose records associated with them and are not archived with the bound volumes. For instance, in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives we have a collection of Loose Marriage Records dating from 1950-2014. These loose marriage records consist of documents like parent permission letters, blood test results and copies of the marriage license. Like the court records, these documents are archived in archival file folders and boxes separately from the bound volumes.

Loose Papers
Loose Papers. Photo courtesy of Melissa Barker of the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Probate Records

One of the most coveted type of records that genealogists seek is the last will and testament of their ancestor. If a will can be found, we hope it will give us clues about other family members. Along with the last will and testament are the other probate records that were generated during the estate probate process. Items such as the administrator bond, estate sale and estate inventory. Some of these records and information are in bound volumes, however, still more are found in loose records. Keep in mind that the information found in the bound volumes (also referred to as copy books) are copies of the original documents and not originals. The documents deemed most important were copied and bound but the loose papers contain all the originals. Other items that could be found in the loose probate records are handwritten letters from family members, affidavits from family members, detailed invoices from local businesses that the deceased owed and so much more. Loose probate records are one of my favorite record sources to do genealogy research. It is important to remember that what is found in the bound probate records may not be all that is available for a particular probated estate.

These few examples are not the only types of bound records that have loose records associated with them. It is always a good idea to ask the archivist about what they have available that are separate from the bound volumes. Most archivists know their collections and should be able to help you find those wonderful loose records, if they exist.

So, the next time you are visiting an archive or contacting them by email or phone, ask about their collections of loose records. The information found in them will most certainly add to your ancestor’s story and might even break down a brick wall!


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.