Earl Shaffer’s battered black journal is small. It had to be, to fit in a rucksack with everything a man needed to walk over 2,000 miles during four months outdoors. Its leather binding wears the damage of heat and weather from a long summer in 1948 spent in the wilderness with Earl Shaffer as he became the first man to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in a season.

Earl Shaffer's Diary Amongst the hundreds of ordinary family stories represented by artifacts in the National Museum of American History, Shaffer’s diary is an evocative introduction to the uncommon story of a World War II vet from York County, PA, who walked from Georgia to Maine. His observations, in his constant—and sometimes only—companion became a source for his later life’s work as an advocate for wilderness conservation. The diary is part of the Earl Shaffer Papers collection in the Archives Center, donated by the Earl Shaffer Foundation, used to create an exhibition for the Documents Gallery (opened July 10). 

Unlined pages, packed with inked, tight handwriting--Shaffer’s diary measures no more than nine inches across. It is damaged by water and humidity; some of the different colored inks have bled across the page due to moisture. The covers are tattered and the rings which hold the paper inside are rusting. When the Smithsonian accepted the diary and decided to put it on display, it was given a full examination by our paper conservator. On display, it rests in a custom-built cradle and after the exhibition ends in October 2009 it will be stored in our climate-controlled archive.

We all have family artifacts of some type or another that we want to preserve, for our personal histories even if they don’t end up in the Smithsonian. But what if you don’t have an archive, with HVACs and HEPA filtration?

The good news is that you don’t need a conservation studio just to take simple steps for preserving your family’s archives. There is a wealth of easy-to-follow, expert information online which I follow, using their common-sense measures to preserve my grandmother’s photos from the 1940s: I don’t touch the surface of photographs since the oil on my fingers will damage the image. If I handle them, it’s grasping the edges with clean hands or, better yet, cotton gloves. I store the photos and papers flat, placing them between sheets of acid free paper, and keeping them in an archival-quality, acid-free storage box. Acid-free means the storage materials won’t erode your documents—very important! Finally, avoid adhesives, since most will eventually damage and destroy the photo or paper you affix them to.

First points of reference for everything from preservation to digitization are the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the National Archives and Records Administration, which provide easy-to-follow guidelines for ensuring your history will last.

Allison Tara Sundaram is an intern in the New Media program at the National Museum of American History.