Preserving Paper and Photos
by Amanda Klaus, Registrar
The Augusta Museum of History cares for all forms of artifacts including furniture, clothing, archaeological collections, weapons, medical material, technology, rare books, maps, painting and prints, but the largest collection by far are the documents and photographs. The museum currently is responsible for hundreds of thousands of photographs and pieces of paper that each has special preservation needs. Because paper and photographs are the most fragile and vulnerable items in your home and are the most likely to be lost without the proper care, here are a few tips in maintaining your treasures.
Paper has a thin, flexible structure that makes it convenient for writing and printing but susceptible to tearing. Its cellulose structure makes it especially vulnerable to moisture, particularly in the form of high humidity or water vapor in the air. Humidity or dampness in the air will create an environment that allows mold and mildew to form. In addition to stains and discoloration to the paper itself mold and mildew is harmful to your personal health and should be handled with gloves and a protective mask.
It is also damaging to paper to be stored in an area without enough moisture. Paper needs a certain level of water to maintain its structure. If the paper gets too dry it will become very brittle, and break at the slightest touch. The ideal humidity level is between 40% and 50%. It is for this purpose that museums maintain safe environments at 70 degrees, 50% humidity at all times.
Photographs also need to be stored in temperature and humidity stable environments. Heat can warp and crack photographs as well as alter the color in newer images. Moisture in the air can cause the chemicals in photographs to adhere to anything they come in contact with. This includes a glass frame or other images stacked together.
Be aware like many other artifacts, paper and photographs will degrade when they come in contact with light. Whether it be direct sunlight, high florescent light or even continued photocopying and scanning, light exposure will cause severe fading. Light creates oxidation within ink, and the result will be the loss of images and text. Keep in mind that higher light levels usually correspond with higher temperatures which need to be closely monitored.
Some of the earliest documents were printed on parchment or velum. These were created from the skins of mammals stretched thin. This was a slow and expensive process but the material proved very stable. This means that although the process was costly and few documents were printed in this way, many of them have survived due to their composition and relative stability. The first American paper mills produced paper that consisted of cotton and linen fiber (often in the form of rags) with no chemical additives. The paper that was produced was also of good quality and very stable. It was less likely to rip or tear and was better able to survive changes in temperature or humidity. The stability of velum, parchment, and early rag paper is the reason that so many important early American documents have survived.
Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century in America the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the way that paper was made. The mass-produced, machine-made paper products were made of cheap wood pulp added to cotton and linen fibers. Wood pulp is naturally acidic and those chemicals led to the paper becoming very unstable. So although the method was cheaper, allowing more of the population access to printed material, it also had a much shorter life span. Modern paper has a protein called lignin that creates more acid as it ages. The acid in paper causes it to turn colors and become very brittle over time. The paper literally destroys itself from the inside out, a process that no preservation can truly stop.
So what can be done to save your treasures?
Due to the fragile nature of paper the most severe damage will happen during the handling of the artifacts. The best option for preserving both paper and photographs today is making a one-time scan or copy. Despite the exposure to the light from the copier or scanner, the copy can be used for display in your home or family research while preserving the original, which can safely be kept in storage. If a piece must be transported, it should be supported with a folder or a stiff paper board. The document should never be allowed to hang loose in the carriers hands.
All materials should be stored in closed, acid-free folders and boxes in order to protect them from dust and light. These can be purchased from archival supply stores. It is important to contain the acid in the paper itself and prevent it from migrating into other documents or photographs. All material used to join paper, such as paper clips, staples, brads, and needles should be removed. Over time these metal objects will rust and stain as well as breakdown the paper. Rubber bands should also be removed as they degrade and damage the paper over time.
Clear polyester sleeves are a great storage resource for photographs, they allow you to see the image and to scan through the plastic while keeping the image safe in a protective enclosure. A PH testing pen can show you if a folder or paper is acidic or not. Make a small mark on a corner of the paper and if the mark stays blue it is acid-free. Most printer paper today is acid-free and can be used between documents and photographs as a barrier.
As a final point, remember to store your boxes in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and dust. It is better to store boxes off the ground due to the many ways in which water can accumulate. Just by raising the storage of boxes a few inches off the ground an entire collection could easily be saved from a disaster.
Preserving documents and photographs may seem like daunting but with advances in digital technology these important family mementos can be kept intact longer than ever before. Unfortunately unstable materials like newspapers, scrapbooks, and paper will not last forever but the information can be saved with digital scanning and the originals can be preserved longer with a protective environment.
For more information see:
CCI: Preserving My Heritage: How to Care for Paper Documents and Newspaper clippings. http://wwwpreservation.gc.ca/howto/articles/paper_e.asp Access Date: 09/16/2008
Library of Congress: Preserving Newspapers. http://www.loc.gov/preserv/care/newspaper.html Access Date: 09/16/2008
The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs, Henry Wilhelm, Grinnell, Iowa: Preservation Publishing Company, 1993
Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation: A Concise Guide to Caring for Your Cherished Belongings, Jane S. Long and Richard S. Long, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000
For Archival Supplies:
The Hollinger Metal Edge