Museums and pathology collections around the world represent an archive of genetic material to study populations and diseases. For preservation purposes, a large portion of these collections has been fixed in formalin-containing solutions, a treatment that results in cross-linking of biomolecules. Cross-linking not only complicates isolation of nucleic acid but also introduces polymerase "blocks" during PCR. A wide variety of methods exists for the recovery of DNA and RNA from archival tissues, and although a number of previous studies have qualitatively compared the relative merits of the different techniques, very few have undertaken wide scale quantitative comparisons. To help address this issue, we have undertaken a study that investigates the quality of nucleic acids recovered from a test panel of fixed specimens that have been manipulated following a number of the published protocols. These include methods of pre-treating the samples prior to extraction, extraction and nucleic acid purification methods themselves, and a post-extraction enzymatic repair technique. We find that although many of the published methods have distinct positive effects on some characteristics of the nucleic acids, the benefits often come at a cost. In addition, a number of the previously published techniques appear to have no effect at all. Our findings recommend that the extraction methodology adopted should be chosen carefully. Here we provide a quick reference table that can be used to determine appropriate protocols for particular aims.