Ever since it was invented in China, around 2000 years ago, paper has been an integral part of human evolution. Paper is the canvas upon which works of art have been created, revolutionary speeches have been written and universal mysteries have been unravelled. As such the preservation of valued and significant paper documents is of huge importance.
A good rule of thumb is that the older the paper the more robust it tends to be (this is the opposite with textiles). For example, paper made in Europe from the late medieval period through to the mid-19th century is of such a high quality that – if stored in good conditions – it can be maintained in excellent condition. While newer paper, which is cheaper to produce, is of a lower quality and can be degraded more easily.
Below we look at three factors that can damage paper and some tips on preserving books and paper for years to come…
The problem with acidity, specifically with paper made from groundwood pulp, is that it comes from within and eventually destroys the paper’s fibres. Think of newspapers that yellow and become brittle over time, that is acid at work, and it can be sped up by exposure to light and humidity.
Specific types of ink can also work to attack the paper it sits upon. In Europe around the 12th century iron gall ink was popular, thought it could actually burn holes right through the paper, particularly in damp conditions. Another inky enemy of paper was ‘verdigris’, a green ink made using copper. It was often used for borders in Islamic books but has proven to be damaging to paper over time.
This term refers to spots and splodges of yellow or brown that are very hard to prevent. They come about as a result of mould and iron that contaminated the paper when it was being produced. The mould actually feeds on the paper itself, as well as on any organic material such as finger marks, crumbs, grease marks and squashed insects on the paper. The iron dates back to dirt and pollution that was around when the paper was manufactured and will rust in damp conditions.
Eight ways to avoid damage to books and paper:
- Never remove a book from the shelf by pulling the top of the spine towards you with your fingers at the top; this can damage the head-cap, which will eventually break off. Instead wrap your hand around the spine, grasping both sides securely.
- Most magazines and journals are held at the spine by a thick layer of glue. This glue will inevitably deteriorate over time, so once this happens store the pages in a book box to preserve it.
- Never lay an old book flat onto a tabletop. Unsupported opening like this will strain the joint between the spine and the covers, which can easily split and break, destroying the book. Use foam wedges (or if you don’t have those use small, clean, rolled-up towels) to support old books whilst you read them to restrict how far the book is opened.
- If you need to photocopy an old book try to avoid pressing it flat against the glass bed, which will damage the spine. Many libraries have special photocopiers that will allow you to photocopy pages at an angle.
- As you’ve read, moisture is the worst enemy of books and paper, so avoid storing them in lofts and basements, keeping boxes away from the floor and walls. Within their boxes, books should be laid flat, spines reversed, with the largest at the bottom and smallest at the top.
- Remove books from their shelves a couple of times a year to dust them and check for any evidence of mould or insects before too much damage is caused.
- Valued paper should never be laminated. Though the addition of a plastic layer will reinforce the paper, it can be chemically unstable, yellowing and becoming brittle over time.
- Finally, never attempt to repair small tears with sticky tape. Over time the backing will drop off any pressure-sensitive tape, leaving adhesive behind, attracting dirt, damaging paper alongside it and turning to acid over time.
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