You’re a family historian. Did you know you have inherent vice in genealogy records?

Fortunately, this has nothing to do with Miami, Sonny Crockett, Ricardo Tubbs, sunglasses, or the colors teal or hot pink. (Thank goodness!)

So What Is Inherent Vice?

The 2005 Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, a free download published by the Society of American Archivists, defines inherent vice as “the tendency of material to deteriorate due to the essential instability of the components or interaction among components.”

The glossary continues: “Nitrate film and highly acidic paper suffer inherent vice because they are chemically unstable. An object made of metal and leather suffers inherent vice because the leather causes the metal to corrode.”

Say Again Why My Family Records Have This Problem?

Inherent vice is archivist talk for common (read cheap) items our relatives and ancestors were sold to use for:

Inherent vice happens when (acidic) newspaper clippings are glued (more acid) to the (acidic or cheap) paper pages of a family scrapbook or album. Let’s count: that’s acid (newspaper) glued (acid) to scrapbooks (acid).

This explains why those family photo albums and scrapbooks are so fragile. It’s amazing items like this survived for family historians to read today! Let’s discover more examples of inherent vice that may exist in your family papers.

Is Ink an Inherent Vice?

In the nineteenth century, the answer is yes. Shown here is an example of iron gall ink, the standard writing ink from the 12th through the 20th century. In in those times was made from varying amounts of iron salts, tannin (galls), gum arabic, and water, to create what we know now as iron gall ink.

The high iron content in the ink (the inherent vice) transfers its acid to the following page. In other words, the corrosion from the iron in the ink eats into the next page of a record, as seen as right.

inherent vice sassy jane genealogy

Fragile Newspaper Clippings

One example of inherent vice you have all seen in your family papers is the yellowing and brittleness of newspaper clippings. This is due in part to chemicals were are added to newsprint (highly acidic paper) to speed its production. Those chemicals (the inherent vice) in turn cause deterioration.
You may also have noticed nineteenth-century letters, diaries, or other written documents using iron-gall ink that has stained the surrounding paper and, in severe cases, eaten through the paper itself, as shown in the image at top.

What Can I Do About Inherent Vice?

What do you do about this?

Only a trained professional conservator can help documents with iron gall ink damage. But you can prevent damage in your family papers. Make sure that these family papers are stored in cool, dry locations, To prevent the transfer of this acid, use buffered acid-free interleaving paper to keep those pages separate from other documents.

For more information, consult the New England Document Conservation Center at this link.