Taking Time to Preserve your Documents at Home

Lockdown has had many of us finally getting around to clearing out lofts, sheds and bookshelves and rediscovering family albums. I’ve certainly been forced to confront some overflowing cupboards and drawers although I have to admit any space I managed to free up has only encouraged me to buy more books. While we turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times it’s also worth taking the time to make sure they’re preserved for the future.

Little fixes can really help to extend the lifespan of your documents. I’m sure many of us have boxes and drawers full of paper documents hanging around waiting for attention and I’d like to mention a few ways to help protect your documents at home.

A more protective folder would make a big difference to these documents (Copyright: Kat Saunt)
  • Remove metal fixings like staples and paperclips that can rust and damage paper, and elastic bands that will degrade and possibly leave stains on paper. In the archive, we only use brass paperclips which won’t rust.
  • If you have yellowed, brittle old paper – for example, newspaper cuttings, this needs to be isolated. The acids that are building up in the paper and causing its decay will also discolour and damage any paper that it is stored in contact with. Without chemical treatment the decay will continue but a quick and easy fix to protect adjacent documents is to interleave and isolate your acidic paper by interleaving with acid-free archival paper. Even good quality office paper for printing is usually manufactured to contain alkaline additives to prevent this to give it a longer lifespan – look for the ‘infinity’ symbol on the packaging to know you’re buying durable paper.
  • A word about sealed ‘ziploc’ plastic bags – they are convenient for storing fragile documents and catching bits that fall off but it’s best not to seal them. As paper and other materials decay they produce chemicals that themselves catalyse and accelerate further decay if they’re trapped in a sealed environment. An open bag or folder can offer protection while still allowing a little air exchange.
  • And while the decay is largely irreversible, you could take this chance to back up with digital copies by scanning or photographing documents – even a quick snap with a mobile phone is worth doing to save information when the physical copy is fragile. This is especially important for more unstable materials like colour photographs, certain inks and pigments, and acidic papers that may already be fragile or losing information.
  • To slow the rate of decay, look to the storage environment. Lofts and sheds tend to suffer from extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations. Paper, books and other documents prefer to be cold, dry, dark, stable and have good air circulation.
  • I’m sure a lot of us have been turning to our bookshelves during lockdown, whether going back to old favourites or tackling a reading list backlog. If you have a book with a broken binding, the best thing to do is to tie or wrap it up and consider storing it flat, especially if it is very large and heavy – heavy bindings often sag under their own weight and this causes damage where the boards join the spine. It’s a design flaw and something that conservators frequently have to repair. Heavy books also often suffer detached boards. In this case, it’s usually enough to keep the board in place and leave it as it is, as long as it is still doing its job to protect the paper textblock while the book is sitting on a shelf. A temporary repair with sellotape will only last so long and the glue causes more damage in the long run.
Close-up of acid-damaged paper (Copyright: Kat Saunt)

Have you created and collected new documents during the Lockdown?

From photographs of empty streets, rainbows and window signs to saving cuttings and printed materials; all the above advice applies to new documents, let’s give them the chance to survive long into the future as a record of these historic times we are living through (see also ‘The East Riding Covid-19 Archive‘).

by Kat Saunt

Conservator

2 thoughts on “Taking Time to Preserve your Documents at Home

  1. I have a very good close-up photo of The Nag’s Head by the shipyard, c1900. There are a lot of people standing outside posing. It looks like a special event – perhaps the opening of the ferry bridge? Henry Millett was the Proprietor. Perhaps you would like me to email you a copy for your archives? I own the glass negative. Kind regards, Helen Thomson

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