The Art of Preserving Paper

Silverfish, book lice and red rot: discover how best to conserve your paper archive for future generations

Who better than Jo Downey, Conservation Officer at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, to tell us how to care for those hoards of papers that we keep in box rooms, attics, garages and outhouses. We may think that we are keeping them safe for posterity, but, in a whole variety of ways, we may be endangering them.

Downey points out in her 'Preserving the Past for the Future' lecture at the Linen Hall Library that 'prevention is better than cure’. Archives of whatever kind - a personal collection can cover an almost infinite range of forms including manuscripts, maps, photographs, printed materials, books and so on - needs to be stored in appropriate conditions.

Excesses of temperature, humidity or instability in the storage climate can wreak havoc. All of these are conditions more likely to arise in the out of the way corners where people keep papers in their homes.

Infestation is the most dramatic proof that you got it wrong, with silverfish, firebrats, book lice, and carpet beetles taking up residence. These pests can be eradicated, but, meanwhile mould or ‘red rot’ on leather bindings may be doing even more damage. Exposure to sunlight or even to artificial light, unless it has low ultra-violet output, can cause rapid degradation of both papers and inks.

Photocopying can be highly damaging, especially if done frequently. Scanning is less detrimental and creates an almost perfect facsimile that can be the used form of the document. This is a particularly useful option for photographic collections.

Amateur archivists who have conscientiously put their papers in order can all too easily compound their problems. Commercial cardboard boxes, filing boxes, folders and envelopes are often acid-laden, and the acid transfers to the documents. Above all sellotape is a no no.

Plastic pockets may seem useful – they enable you to see the document without touching its surface – but most commercial pockets are highly acidic. Not to mention the danger that the print might transfer from the document to the plastic.

Even if you get everything right it might not make a difference. Downey points out the gloomy fact that papers already have the causes of their decay inbuilt. This is least true of linen and cotton rag paper, the kind in use before the mid-19th century. It is most true of cheap wood-pulp paper of the later era, the sort that was most notably used for newsprint.

If you are losing the struggle, and want to actively intervene to repair a fraying manuscript, you should be aware of the basic principles of conservation. Never seek to forge a missing piece; the nature of any repair should always be evident; repair like with like as far as possible and interventions should be reversible. On a more prosaic level never laminate a document. It will simply seal in the causes of its decay.

Downey’s talk focusses very much on practice at PRONI. No harm in that, as they have the most sophisticated archive conservation operation in Northern Ireland. Of course they are governed by the high principles of the trade. It would still have been useful, however, to hear more about the practical challenges faced by private collectors.

The hand-out about the materials archivists deal with, such as paper, parchment and leather, comes directly from Wikipedia. Easily accessible for all. It would have been helpful to also include the specifics on optimum temperature and humidity ranges and information about the suppliers of acid free and archivally recommended storage materials.

Unfortunately, the talk is too brief to cover the techniques that owners facing major problems with advanced decay might need. This could include specialist, intensive and expensive work, such as de-acidification, re-sizing, and repair.

PRONI will provide advice to archivists, although they don't accept private contracts, and will be open for business again in their new premises in the Titanic Quarter from March 30. Or, if the archival responsibility to future generations is overwhelming, Downey points out that you can deposit papers with PRONI and put them into the public domain.