Family bibles are heirlooms that provide tangible connections to family roots and key clues in genealogy research, so it’s crucial to store them properly to preserve the past.
Most family Bibles contain careful handwritten records of important family events, including births, marriages and deaths. Many also hold an array of ephemera between their pages — from locks of hair tied with ribbons to old tintypes, news clippings and family lore.
When dancer-choreographer Noelle Andressen inherited an over 100-year-old family Bible, she consulted a museum curator to learn how to store it correctly. The Bible belonged to her great grandfather, a Lutheran minister who preached at a humble countryside church in upstate New York.
“What I like most about it: the surprises and symbolism behind the family stories that it represents,” said Andressen, who lives in New York and Los Angeles.
Andressen found dried violets pressed in the book of Genesis, and she remembers her grandmother telling stories of how her own father — Andressen’s great-grandfather — plunked the Bible on the pulpit with a thud every Sunday.
“Family Bibles were central to many families, so if you have one, you’re pretty lucky,” said Melissa Barker, certified archives manager for Houston County, TN.
Over the years, Barker has seen many Bibles, including one that chronicled family adventures traveling out West for the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, with notes from the trip penned on the insides of the cover and in the margins of pages. Family Bibles are “wonderful treasures for a family to have,” she said.
So, if you just inherited a Bible that has been passed down through your family for generations, or you’ve been feeling guilty because you have one sitting around collecting dust, here’s what to do:
1. Scan Important Pages
Use a scanner to copy the pages where important family events were recorded in pen or pencil, recommends Pat Richley-Erickson — aka “Dear Myrtle” — who offers tips and advice on her genealogy blog. You can simply take the book to a local office supply store that has a large scanner, or use a handheld scanner if the book is very delicate. Another option is to use your smartphone or tablet to snap photos, then use a scanner app to create a neat-looking page. You can also scan objects, such as locks of hair or photos, that you found in the Bible. Scanning allows you to keep a digital record to share quickly with relatives without having to open the Bible, except for special occasions like family reunions.
2. Get an Archival Bible Box.
Don’t store your family Bible in a traditional wooden Bible box because off-gassing can damage the cover and pages, the American Library Association warns. Instead, order a true acid-free archival storage box from a reputable supplier, such as Gaylord, Hollinger Metal Edge or University Products. The Bible should fit snugly, but not too tightly, inside the box. If necessary, crumple up some archival tissue paper to pad the extra space so the Bible doesn’t move around and get damaged, Barker suggests.
If there are items stuffed in between the pages, take photos to document their original location within the book, then place them in archival sleeves or in smaller archival boxes that can be put inside the main box with the Bible. Finally, consider placing archival tissue paper between any pages with handwriting to avoid ink bleeding onto pages over time, Barker said.
3. Choose the Right Storage Spot.
House the box in cool, dry place away from humidity and direct sunlight.
“The interior of a closet works well, the darker the better,” Barker said.
However, make sure air circulates freely in the space. Avoid sticking the box in an attic, basement or stuffy room, where it can be damaged by fluctuating temperatures and humidity — and don’t set it on the floor.
“You never know when a dishwasher will overflow or pipes will burst,” Barker said.
And don’t place your family Bible in a self-storage unit, warns Richley-Erickson, who owns a self-storage business in Washington State. Even a climate-controlled unit might not provide the consistent temperatures needed to keep your Bible safe, she said.
4. Lay it Flat
Finally, don’t make common Bible storage mistakes like setting a family Bible upright on a bookshelf as if it were an ordinary book. Standing an old book on end puts pressure on the spine, causing it to deteriorate, Barker said.
5. Take it Out When the Time is Right
Andressen also said she avoids taking her treasured Bible out of its box in humid weather.
“The pages can warp,” she said.
Limit the number of occasions you remove the Bible from its storage place to avoid exposure. It is always a good idea to wear archival gloves to keep oily fingertips from damaging pages.
If you follow these simple steps, your family Bible should last to get passed down to continue telling your family story.