Understanding the ProblemSince the 1860s all but the most expensive paper has been made from wood pulp. Manufacturers used wood pulp because it was much more plentiful and much less expensive than the cotton fibers they had previously used. Thus manufacturers could sell paper to consumers at a fraction of the former cost. However, paper made of wood included chemicals that had not been found in paper made in the earlier era. The most important change was the introduction of acid. Acid is what causes paper to slowly turn brown and become brittle. Eventually acidic paper will disintegrate into small pieces of confetti.
Exactly how long it takes for a specific piece of paper to self-destruct depends on the exact nature of the chemicals used to make the product and the way in which paper is stored. Newsprint is usually the cheapest paper available and tends to be the first to decay. Newspaper clippings can often show a significant amount of aging in ten to twenty-five years. Other paper will decay more slowly, but any paper over fifty years of age may have developed significant problems.
A second problem created by acid is acid migration. Acid migration is a term used to explain the phenomena in which acid from low quality paper tends to bleed out onto neighboring pieces of paper. A typical example of acid migration occurs when a newspaper clipping that had been enclosed with a letter is allowed to remain in contact with it for many years. When the letter is re-opened a brown stain in the outline of the clipping has often discolored the paper on which the letter was written. That stain is an example of acid migration. Acid migration not only discolors paper, it increases the acidic content in the area of the stain thus shortening the paper's lifespan.
The Enemies of PaperThe best way to minimize damage to your family records is to properly store your papers away from four hazards that measurably shorten paper's lifespan: heat, humidity, light, and careless handling by people.
Heat speeds chemical reactions and causes paper to decay more quickly. The rate of change is dramatic; doubling with every ten degree (fahrenheit) increase in temperature. Humidity can also destroy paper. Humidity does its harm in two ways. Humidity levels above seventy percent promotes mold growth. Rapid changes in humidity can also damage paper. Wide variations in humidity causes paper to "cycle," expanding and contracting as water is drawn from and goes back into the paper fibers. Bright light, particularly sunlight and fluorescent light, can also injure records. Like heat, ultra-violet radiation can speed chemical reactions that harm paper. However, damage from light usually shows up first in ink which fades and eventually disappears. Careless handling is probably the most frequent cause of harm to paper. Particularly as paper ages and becomes brittle, it will easily rip if it is not handled very gently.
Preserving PaperStoring loose papers properly is an important step in preserving your family records. Proper storage can lengthen the useful life of any piece of paper. Some helpful ideas include:
- Store family papers in a cool, dry place, where the humidity stays relatively constant. A bedroom closet is often a good choice particularly if the bedroom or the whole house, is air conditioned. A room where the temperature remains between sixty-five and seventy degrees fahrenheit with a constant relative humidity of about forty-five percent is an ideal environment. Uninsulated attics or damp basements are very poor places to store valuable family papers.
- Do not expose paper to bright light for extended periods of time. If you feel strongly that you must frame and display a particular document, mat it in acid-free material, leave a small gap between the item and the glass of the frame, and spend a few extra dollars to purchase glass that filters out ultra-violet radiation. When hanging the item avoid a location where direct sunlight from a window or another source of light will reach it.
- Do not store particularly bad pieces of paper touching higher quality paper. If you desire to store a poor quality piece of paper place it between two blank sheets of high quality paper. Acid will migrate into the blank paper, which can be thrown away, rather than into family letters or other heirlooms.
- Do store papers opened (not folded), and flat. Fold lines place great stress on paper fiber. As paper ages and becomes brittle folds are the place were paper usually first cracks.
Paper Restoration - A Word of CautionOver the years, professional conservators have developed a sophisticated array of tools and techniques that can be used to clean, restore and mend documents or books. Successfully using these procedures, however, frequently requires considerable skill, the use of toxic chemicals, and some good luck. Restoration of damaged paper is often expensive, frequently risky, and sometimes doesn't work. In most cases it should only be done by a professional conservator.
The best advice to most do-it-yourself restorers is to do nothing. Home remedies often not only fail to fix the problem but introduce new problems that are even more difficult to fix. It is usually better to store a partially damaged document under good conditions than to try to fix it without professional help. Perhaps the most destructive "home remedy" professional conservators face are repairs done with self-adhesive tape.
Self-adhesive tape should never be used to repair torn or ripped paper, or in an attempt to refasten torn covers to a book. Most tape sticks for only five to ten years. Eventually the tape fall offs, leaving behind a tear or rip imbedded with a sticky adhesive mess that discolors the paper. Even a trained conservator, who could fix the rip or tear in a way that is permanent, will find it difficult and probably impossible, to remove the adhesive and the discoloration from the paper.
Close behind tape in its destructive effect is the practice of lamination. Lamination does not lengthen the natural life of paper and its sticky plastic is virtually impossible to remove. Lamination should not be confused with the professional practice of "encapsulation." Encapsuled documents are placed between two sheets of inert plastic. However the "sandwich" that is created is sealed only around the edges, thus the document is not attached to the plastic in any way.
In general, the best advice for preserving your family papers is to store papers opened, flat, and in a cool, dry place and to restrain yourself and your family from attempting any kind of home repairs to damaged items.
Paper Care - A Checklist
- Always store paper records in a cool, dry place.
- Do not store paper in uninsulated attics or damp basements.
- Always store paper away from bright light.
- If you choose to frame and display a paper item, always use glass which filters out UV radiation in front of the document.
- Store papers opened, rather than folded, and flat.
- Separate "bad" pieces of paper from other items by sandwiching "bad" paper between two, blank sheets of quality paper.
- Never put pressure sensitive tape on a document.
- Never laminate a document.