Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Preservation Perspective: Paper Life

In 2004, I was fortunate enough to take a printmaking class where we made our own paper and sized it accordingly for our artwork. As an archivist today, the process of making paper sheds light on the importance of paper preservation. Technically, paper consists of fibers that have been reduced to pulp, suspended in water, and then matted into sheets. Paper is made primarily from plant fibers (e.g. cotton, wood, flax, straw, and mulberry). Cellulose is the most important constituent of paper and is composed of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen.

The invention of paper is actually attributed to the Chinese dating back to 200 B.C. With the high demand of paper over the centuries, the quality has declined quite significantly. With this decline in quality, an issue of acidity has presented itself. Factors of acidity come from the types of pulp used to make paper, bleaching, inks, fillers and brighteners. These simple chemical changes create a preservation problem for us all.

When looking into acidity levels and preservation, the pH scale is very important. Sitting in design class years ago, the pH scale was introduced and discussed several times. For artists and archivists alike, paper types, inks, paints, you name it, has to be accounted for when thinking and working in terms of preservation.

Below is a diagram of the pH scale. In the archives, we use acid-free paper and boxes which has a neutral or basic pH (7 or slightly greater) level. Acid-free paper and boxes addresses the problem of preserving documents for long periods of time.

Highly acidic materials like newspaper should be completely isolated from other materials in a collection. Acidity migrates from document to document if not properly stored separately.

It is very wise to consult with professionals in regard to preserving paper documents. The University Libraries' Archives and Special Collections and Drawings and Documents Archives work to preserve history. If you have any questions about preserving your items, please contact us for more information!

Happy Preservation Week! -Bethany
For more information about paper and preservation, please visit the Library of Congress Preserving Works on Paper website. For general preservation, check out Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler`s book on preserving manuscripts.

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