Protecting Paper History: 4 Rules for Safeguarding and Preserving Historical Paper Documents

It’s not a stretch to say historians wouldn’t have a clue about much of mankind’s history if it weren’t for paper. 

From Da Vinci’s flying machines to mankind’s first trek into space, historical paper documents immortalize humanity’s most esteemed accomplishments. Paper records bore human history into the era of digital archives. Surely there’s an archivist or two out there tossing and turning, unable to sleep for thinking what the world would look like today had the library of Alexandria been saved to an external hard drive.

Though paper can seem like an outdated medium in these technical times, it’s more important than ever to protect paper documents while they’re still around. Paper records, manuscripts, and charters provide modern audiences with insight into how business and life in general used to be conducted—plus, it’s just straight-up cool to view and handle a physical piece of history. 

How can paper documents be preserved against deterioration, neglect, and environmental threats? Following are four best practices for collectors and archivists alike to keep their prized papers safe and sound.

1. Learn the science of paper.

A degree isn’t necessary to properly preserve a historical document, but understanding the composition of materials one wishes to preserve is the first step to doing so successfully.

Paper isn’t made to last forever—at least, not anymore. The Library of Congress offers a thorough summary of the history of paper here, but the takeaway is that paper isn’t as durable as it used to be. Before the mid-1800s, paper was usually composed of cotton or linen rather than the processed wood pulp used today. The long fibers of cloth not only provide strength and durability but, under perfect conditions, can retain the paper’s original quality for centuries.

Modern paper is created from wood pulp and other plant-based materials, which is vulnerable to a number of environmental factors. Moisture, air pollutants, and contact with other contaminants cause acidic breakdown of the short plant fibers that make up most kinds of paper. Photodegradation, or damage caused by light, also plays a role in the loss of lower-quality papers. It’s essential to understand the ways that a paper collection deteriorates over time in order to take the correct precautions to preserve its integrity.

2. Handle with care.

The only failsafe method of paper preservation is implementing a “hands-off” policy—less handling during a document’s lifespan ensures a much longer life. However, that’s not an option for most caretakers of paper research materials or records. 

If a collector does handle paper documents, it’s vital to take the necessary safety measures. This includes keeping hands and workspace clean and clear of any contaminants, and never placing food or drink around any documents or work areas. Never earmark pages by folding or using paper clips, rubber bands, acidic paper inserts, or adhesive materials. Nitrile or white cotton gloves can be worn in most cases to prevent oils and other contaminants that live on human hands from damaging paper documents. However, collectors should use judgment to determine if gloves are necessary for their individual materials, as gloves come with the risk of handling accidents due to a lack of dexterity. Photos should always be handled with gloves to prevent fingerprints.

A workspace for handling paper should be free of dust or mold, and away from anything that would affect environmental stability (such as harsh lighting, windows, radiators, vents, etc.). If paper documents have water damage or have been exposed to any other pollutants, this could affect human health and contaminate other papers in the workspace. In these cases, collectors should always protect themselves from mold spores and other dangers by using face masks and/or goggles. 

3. Find the right storage option.

How paper documents are stored is just as important as how they’re handled. Storage is an essential step in proper document preservation. 

Requirements for handling documents can also be applied to storage requirements. The temperature of the storage area should never drop below room temperature (68 to 70 °F) and the humidity should always remain as low as possible. This means attics, basements, and any other location with a risk of temperature and moisture fluctuations should be avoided at all costs. 

Storage enclosures should be chosen specifically to prevent any acidic breakdown over time. This means just any old box won’t do! Acid-free folders and boxes work best, and damaged papers should be stored away from undamaged papers to prevent migration of contaminants. Flat storage is preferred, especially for books and other bound documents, but avoid stacking, even though the convenience is tempting.

4. Consider digitization as the ultimate preservation approach.

Digitization is the best way to ensure a paper collection will last for future generations, especially if a collector plans to share or display it. Embarking on a digitization project is no easy task, but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming! The digital preservation process is worth doing right the first time, even if that means investing more time and energy into the process. It’s best to enlist the help of experienced digital preservation experts when undertaking a large project, but if the papers only need to be scanned for one-off research purposes, there are guidelines to consider.

Scanning beds should always be larger than the material being scanned. This may take some maneuvering or investment on the part of the collector. Never apply pressure to papers in the scanning bed, and always use book cradles or wedges when handling bound papers. Special care should be taken for photos, newspapers, prints, and any other delicate or brittle materials. Consider mending tears with archival tape before scanning. 

Self-feeding scanners have a tendency to wrinkle delicate paper documents—or skip pages altogether—which damages the original, ruins the quality of the scanned image, and effectively renders a collector’s digitization efforts pointless. Scanning equipment designed for preservation should have features to control light and heat, but it never hurts to double-check the settings before beginning a scanning project.

A digitization project is only as successful as the eyes and hands behind it. Collaborating with professionals and developing an end goal will determine which steps in the process are necessary. Many binding, cloud storage, document cleanup, and metadata tagging techniques are available to ensure the digital copy of a collection is as useful to the audience as possible. For those collectors who wish to display a replica of the original document, always be sure to use archival quality paper, which will extend the life of the replica and make display and storage much easier.

Collectors and conservators today aren’t protecting the library of Alexandria, but they are ensuring that the history of humanity is around to inform and delight future generations. And while deliberate destruction of most collections is unlikely, damage to historical paper documents can come from everyday circumstance. 

It’s crucial for anyone tasked with preserving paper history to realize that a modern day disaster like flooding, improper handling, or a server crash without proper backups could potentially be just as devastating as the loss of 40,000 scrolls. 

Guest article written by: Farica Chang heads a team of dedicated archivists invested in preservation.  As Principal of Anderson Archival, a digital archiving company in St. Louis, Missouri, Farica has extensive experience in many aspects of the archival process. Anderson Archival increases the impact, relevance, and accessibility of historical document collections with a thorough, principled digital preservation process.

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