Conservation advice: documents

Many people have letters, diaries, postcards or other paper documents that they wish to preserve. The key to preserving paper is to treat it with care.

Paper varies greatly. It may be weak or strong, low-quality or high-quality, depending on how old it is, where it was made and what it was made from. Paper over 100 years old is often strong, but more modern paper contains impurities that weaken and damage it.

We damage paper without meaning to if we fold or staple it, or use metal paper clips and pins.

Attempting to mend paper can also damage it. Sticky tape causes many problems - it can stain, and it eventually falls off, leaving behind a sticky residue that is almost impossible to remove.

Some glues can damage paper, too. Modern glues cause more problems than plain, old-fashioned starch paste.

We recommend that you do not try to mend your valuable documents. They will be safer if you handle and store them correctly.

Do not write on your documents unless there is no alternative, and then use only a soft pencil, taking care not to press too hard. It is better to write any notes or extra information on a separate sheet of paper (preferably archival) and store it with the document.

Handling and displaying your documents

Handling and displaying your treasured letters, cards and other papers correctly prolongs their life. There are just a few simple rules to follow.

  • Handle documents carefully, and only when necessary.
  • Wash your hands first and make sure they are dry. Don't use any hand cream as it can stain.
  • If documents are strong and flexible, unfold them and place them flat, if possible, in transparent plastic sleeves or in archival-quality folders to protect them. Transparent plastic sleeves are better because they allow you to see the documents clearly with less handling. 'Copy Safe' plastic sleeves (available from stationers) and food storage bags made of polyester, polyethylene or polypropylene (from supermarkets) are all suitable. Oven bags are especially suitable as they are made from polyester, which is particularly safe for paper.
  • Do not unfold or unroll brittle papers as they can crack, especially along the folds. These papers need to be humidified first. Contact a conservator for advice.
  • Display documents out of direct sunlight.

If you are framing your documents, refer to the framing advice in works of art on paper.

Photograph albums may be a useful way to display your documents. See photographs for further information.

Make photocopies if your documents are very fragile and avoid handling the original.

And a few rules not to follow:

  • Don't fold documents. This weakens the paper along the fold.
  • Don't glue documents to paper or cardboard to strengthen or mend them. Glues can damage paper and may be very difficult to remove. The acidity in many cardboards can migrate to your document, causing deterioration.
  • Don't laminate documents that you want to keep. Although lamination is often advertised for preserving paper, we do not recommend it because the plastic is absorbed into the paper and can't be removed. It could also yellow the paper.

Storing your documents

Paper should be stored in a place that is clean and free of insects and other pests. The light levels should be low, and the temperature and humidity should be moderate and stable. Don't store paper in direct sunlight.

Avoid storing documents in cellars, attics, garden sheds or bookcases next to fireplaces. Mould grows quickly at high humidity, and paper can become brittle at low humidity or high temperatures.

Vacuum away dust regularly and inspect your storage areas for silverfish. Good housekeeping can often reduce the problem, but if infestation is severe, contact a licensed pest control company.

Place your documents in 'Copy Safe' or other archival plastic sleeves. Put sheets of archival-quality paper behind them. You can write any extra information in pencil on this paper.

Documents in archival plastic sleeves can be stored in an ordinary ring binder or in boxes. Boxes help to reduce damage and may also act as a buffer against extremes of temperature and humidity. You can also store documents in archival-quality photograph albums with plastic sleeves.

If silverfish are present, seal ring binders, boxes and albums in plastic bags.

If you refer to your documents often, consider photocopying them for everyday use.

Remember to check your documents now and again for signs of mould, insect infestation or other damage.

Photocopying your documents

You can preserve many types of documents and printed material by photocopying them.

Modern electrostatic photocopiers (the dry, Xerox type) give copies with a reasonable lifetime, particularly if you use archival paper.

For example, newspaper clippings have a much shorter life than photocopies of the newspaper. You can use and handle photocopied family documents while the original is in safe storage. You can help guard against losing the information contained in the documents if you photocopy them and store them in places away from the originals.

Copying letters and similar small items is safe if you take care. However, serious damage can occur to books and large items. It is better to use a machine with a fixed platen (glass copy plate). For large items a fixed platen is essential. Photocopiers with mobile platens should only be used for single sheet materials or small books. Items hanging out of mobile platens are in danger of catching and tearing.

Never force a book down on a photocopier platen. Handle books carefully. Fragile bindings and tight spines can break if forced, and brittle paper can crack. A good rule is: if it has to be forced, it'll break.

Since books need to be turned upside down for photocopying, make sure the book you want to copy is strong enough to take the handling. Beware of loose bits.

Maps and large sheet materials should not be copied on ordinary photocopier platens nor should they be folded to 'fit'. Another rule: if it is much bigger than the platen, it can't be safely copied. If a map or other large sheet object is brittle or torn, don't copy it on an auto-feed, plan copier. Strong maps can be copied on these machines if fed through between polyester sheeting (Mylar or Melinex).

If your item is rolled, don't even try to copy it until it is properly relaxed and unrolled.

If you can't easily handle an item you're photocopying, for example, a large and/or heavy book, get help.

We suggest that you store a set of archival copies of your documents and use them if you need to make subsequent copies. This is important if your documents are very fragile.

The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material provides a directory of conservators in private practice. You can use the directory to find someone in your region with the expertise to provide qualified care of your memorabilia.