Paper Basics

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Paper Materials and Construction | Paper Care, Handling, and Storage

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Paper Materials and Construction

Though paper may appear simple, it can contain a wide variety of interacting fibers, inks, and dyes. The composition of paper greatly impacts its strength and its usable lifetime.

Paper is made of plant fibers formed into a felt-like mat. Historically, Western-style papers were handmade with strong cotton or linen fibers like those still used to make paper money. Beginning around the middle of the 19th century, paper began to be made by machines using wood pulp. Overall, this created a weaker, shorter-lived product.

Acids are an enemy to paper. Acids can cause yellowing and embrittlement, making paper susceptible to breaking and tearing. Many lower-quality papers degrade from within by generating their own destructive acids.

Different types of ink interact with paper differently. Found frequently in archival collections, iron gall ink causes particular difficulties. This ink slowly degrades paper. It may cause a dark, halo-like effect around writing, become visible from the reverse side, and eventually, burn entirely through paper.



Paper Care, Handling, and Storage

The following guidelines can help prolong the lifetime of paper documents:

  • Wash and dry your hands before handling paper. Body oil, lotions, and food residue will continue to degrade paper for many years after they are deposited.

  • Use only pencil to make necessary annotations. Inks can fade, bleed, and cause permanent damage.

  • Store paper flat whenever possible. Repeated folding and rolling can cause cracks and tears over time.

  • Use paper documents flat on the table. Lifting or dangling with one hand invites tears and losses. To be safe, treat each document like a valuable, fragile piece of china.

  • Do not use modern office supplies on archival paper, including stick-on notes, paper clips, tape, and rubber bands. These products can cause cutting and tearing, and can leave an irreversible adhesive residue behind. Instead, use archival folders and envelopes when needed.

  • Keep paper items away from harsh, intense light. Light fades ink and hastens paper deterioration. Light damage is permanent and irreversible, even with the most advanced conservation treatment.

  • Do not exhibit paper items for extended periods of time. The concept of “resting” a document to reverse light damage after exhibit is a fallacy. As noted above, light damage is permanent and irreversible.

  • Store paper in a climate-controlled area. Excessive changes in temperature and relative humidity can aggravate deterioration processes. See Environmental Control for details.

  • Pay special attention to environmental and pest guidelines to avoid mold outbreaks and pest activity. See Environmental Control and Pest Management for details.

  • Plan ahead for water disasters. Paper absorbs water extremely quickly and can become permanently disfigured within seconds of contact. After a water emergency, a damp environment can create a lingering threat of mold for many months. See Water Emergencies for details.

Preservation information provided by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission is intended only as a general guideline for collections care. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission is not responsible for any damage that might occur in the specific application of this information.

Page last modified: December 10, 2018