Handling Guidelines for Works on Paper

by Heather Hamilton, Conservator for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission

TSLAC staff members handle so many different archival and library materials, from fragile handwritten documents, to historic leather bindings, to oversized contemporary maps. Staff attend trainings in order to practice safe handling of collections. Normally, we would gather together as a team to discuss the challenges and receive training in a workshop format. During COVID-19, we are practicing social distancing at TSLAC, so for our 2021 trainings, we have prepared videos that staff can view at their convenience. The silver lining is that we can share these training materials with the public.

We will post a series of videos demonstrating the ways that collection materials can be handled to minimize risk of damage. I feel sure that you will find some useful information here that can help you care for your own family documents, artworks, and other fragile papers and books you may be caring for.

In this first series of videos, I’ll demonstrate handling oversized papers. Here, you’ll see me moving large materials by myself. With the right tools and some preparation, you can handle large items alone… up to a limit. Papers bigger than the ones you see here require help from a second person.

Handling Oversized Works on Paper: 4 Training Videos

Video 1: Flipping a large sheet without supports.

Remove any hanging jewelry or lanyards. Secure bulky clothes that could catch on the paper. Be sure you have a clear, clean space to turn the sheet. Lift the paper gently at the edge closest to you. Use both hands, placing your fingers on top of the sheet and thumbs underneath for a broad, secure hold. Lift the sheet until it just comes off the table and lean forward to lay it on its face. This should be done in one smooth motion. This is for stable papers. Fragile items require other methods.

Video 2: Lifting and moving an oversized sheet

This method requires that the sheet is strong and able to drape in a curved shape. It is not appropriate for fragile items. Arrange the area receiving the sheet. Be sure it is clean and clear of other items. Place all fingers under two opposite corners, with thumbs on top, for a broad, secure hold. Lift the sheet carefully, allowing the middle to drape gently down. Lift the sheet high enough not to drag on the table. Carry it to the receiving area and lay it down slowly. If the sheet will not drape, but buckles in any way when you lift it, lay the sheet back down, because this method will not be correct for this item.

Video 3: Moving unwieldy materials

The item here is a very large fragile print wrapped in plastic. Don’t be tempted to move fragile items from place to place without a support, even when you are pressed for time. Place the item carefully on a support board, one that doesn’t flex. Corrugated boards work well. In a library or archives setting, have boards like this available and easy to find. You can label them as “Support Boards for Moving Large Items” to make sure they do not wander off or get used for something else.

Video 4: Turning an artifact using two rigid boards

This method uses two rigid support boards to turn a sheet over. Again, corrugated boards are good for this, because they do not flex very much. The boards should be somewhat larger than the sheet to be turned. Place the sheet on a clean board. Gently lay the second board on the top by aligning the long edge and guiding the board down. This should be done slowly to prevent creating a draft that could make the artifact move. I’ve seen this happen and it is scary. If you need to align the top board, lift it a small amount to shift it, rather than scooting it across the artifact. Use binder’s clips to secure one long edge of the boards. These clips must not cinch the artifact itself but be a few inches away. Arrange the area that will receive the item. Place one hand under the center of the bottom board. Place the other hand on the top board, directly above your bottom hand. Turn the whole unit over in one smooth motion. Unclip the boards. Lift the top board slowly, being sure to check that the artifact is not lifting as you do so.

Future videos will show how you can handle fragile leather bindings and turn acidic pages.