Planning a time capsule? Some things to keep in mind

Photograph from time capsule
What sixty years of folding can do

Every once in a while History San Jose’s Research Library & Archives receives the contents of a time capsule that someone has unearthed while demolishing or renovating a building. Most recently our good friend Jim Salata of Garden City Construction passed along some materials he found in the cornerstone of a church building that was being torn down. The time capsule had been created more than sixty years ago, and like so many such capsules, its existence had been totally forgotten.

Inside the capsule were such items as a church bulletin, a pamphlet history of the church, some administrative documents and financial statements, and three 8”x10” photographs of dignitaries at a ground-breaking ceremony. All the printed matter is in quite good condition for six-decades-old papers, but the photographs have not fared nearly as well.

All three photos had been folded down the center, and in one case, the emulsion on the photo caused it to stick to itself (see accompanying photo).

In seeing this unfortunate damage, I was reminded of an email thread a few months back from a listserv for museum professionals, discussing how best to deal with time capsules. Based on re-reading that correspondence, and a Web search on the subject, I’ve come up with a few suggestions for those who might be planning to create a capsule themselves:

  1. First of all, document where the capsule will be placed, and put that documentation where it can be found at the appropriate future time. Suggestions include:
    • a safe on the premises,
    • a safety deposit box,
    • an attorney’s office, or (perhaps best of all)
    • the organization’s own archival or collection records.
  2. Include a list of the contents of the capsule, and some brief description of the reason for including each document or artifact. The International Time Capsule Society at Oglethorpe University maintains a registry.
  3. Use an air- and water-tight container. A quick Web search under “time capsule vendors” will lead you to many reputable sources.
  4. Think carefully about what you want to include.
    • If you include photographs, do not fold them. Put each one in a chemically inert, acid-free sleeve.
    • Newspapers, for instance, deteriorate fairly quickly, and the acidic content in the paper can migrate to other documents.
    • Also, think carefully about including any electronic media. Even the best CDs and DVDs often have a limited shelf life. Even more importantly, will the software and hardware required to read them or play them back even be easily available in 25, 50, or 100 years?

The best time capsules offer a snapshot into the life of a particular community or institution at one frozen moment of time. Just imagine how someone in the future will respond the treasures you might include in such a device!

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