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Caring for paper collections

Overview

Paper appears in museums and galleries in many ways, perhaps in the form of an ancient manuscript or a delicate watercolour painting. Paper could be stuck to other items or it could come in the form of a scroll or historic map.

Given the proliferation of the material, museum managers and curators need to think carefully about how to care for their paper collections and preserve them for future generations. For advice on caring for photographs, read [our separate guide on the subject .

Threats to paper collections

Paper is a resilient material but, in certain conditions, can be seriously and irreparably damaged.

Your paper collections could be affected by:

  • Environmental factors, including fluctuating relative humidity, temperature, light and air pollution
  • Pests
  • People
  • Materials that come into direct contact with the objects, in either storage or display
  • The material quality of the object itself

If these conditions are unfavorable, paper can become discoloured, dog-eared or grow brittle. Paper is also subject to tears, abrasion, creases, stains and the fading of ink and pigments. However, preventing these issues is fairly easy with just a few simple improvements to display and storage conditions.

Basic guidelines

Threats Conditions needed to preserve paper
Relative humidity
  • 45 - 65%
  • Minimal fluctuations
Temperature
  • 10 - 20˚C
  • Minimal fluctuations
Light
  • No light in storage
  • On display, maximum of 50 lux visible light
  • Maximum of 10 microwatts per lumen of UV radiation
  • Limited display periods
Air quality
  • Reduced particulate pollution
  • Reduced gaseous pollution
Pests
  • Pest control established in the museum building
People
  • Systems that help people handle paper objects safely
  • Barriers for more sensitives items that cannot be handled
Contacting materials
  • Must be chemically inert
Unstable objects
  • All the above conditions maintained to slow down deterioration

Environmental control

Relative humidity and temperature

Paper, like many materials, can be damaged or weakened by changing levels of relative humidity and temperature. When humidity is high it can become discoloured and lose flexibility.

Store paper in cool, dry places - avoid using basements or attics for display and storage. If rooms are naturally humid, take precautionary steps such as installing insulation, low level heating or dehumidifiers.

Light

Our in-depth guide to lighting your displays goes into detail about reducing light damage. Light can fade inks and watercolours on paper, especially over extended periods of time or under high intensity. Store all paper items in the dark to avoid this.

For display purposes, there are precautions you can take to minimise light damage. Pay particular attention to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, that is present in all light but unnecessary for viewing items.

  • Expose the light for only 100,000 lux hours a year, removing the item from display once it exceeds that time or turning pages regularly if the paper items is a book.
  • Rotate paper items in and out of storage to reduce exposure hours.
  • Block out all light outside of visitors hours.
  • Limit the amount of daylight in a room as artificial light is easier to control.
  • Put in anti-UV radiation precautions such as laminated glass or UV-absorbing filters.

Air Quality

Air can often carry pollutants that affect paper if left unattended. Dust is a mixture of many elements that could damage paper over time. On paper, dust isn't always easy to remove. Polluting gases, such as nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, can also discolour papers.

Dangerous gases can sneak in from several sources, including:

  • Vehicle emissions
  • Wood and wood finishes
  • Newly applied oil-based paints
  • Poor quality paper products
  • Some types of plastics, especially cellulose nitrate and poor quality foams
  • Poorly processed photographic materials
  • Photocopy machines

Thankfully, such airborne pollutants can be tackled. Dust levels can be reduced by having well-sealed doors, windows and showcases, along with general cleanliness. Keep stored items covered.

For polluting gases, identify any harmful materials and remove them from the room. Alternatively, use card and paper products, such as MicroChamber®, that contain molecular sieves. These materials trap specific molecules and are no more expensive than other good quality storage materials.

Pests

Paper is less vulnerable to pests than textiles and other materials in your collection. Book lice and silverfish can still be an issue, however, and pests should be anticipated when preparing paper displays. Be aware, also, of mice and flies which can damage or destroy paper items.

Keep paper objects in cool and dry environments to ward off most pests and monitor insect activity using sticky traps. Avoid wooden frames or boxes, which can harbour woodworm. Contact conservators the moment you identify a pest problem.

Storage and display

Preparing paper for storage or putting it on display should be planned in advance. When storing paper artefacts, choose the most appropriate method for your collections. You could keep your items in small bundles, inside high-quality sleeves, acid-free card folders and large boxes or draws.

Three-dimensional objects such as paper models require more thought (and plenty of acid-free tissue) when being stored. Make sure they don't get crushed. Displaying paper items comes with other risks.

People

People are essential to making museums happen, but they also present significant risks to items. Degraded or damaged paper, large works and fragile media are hard to handle safely. Consider training staff in how to handle paper items correctly and carry out practical procedures.

Here are some basic guidelines on dealing with paper objects:

  • Ensure that there are the correct facilities for safe work, including clean surfaces and basins for regular hand-washing.
  • Use small weights for weighing down sheets.
  • Storerooms and cabinets should be clearly labelled.
  • Items should be handled as little as possible.
  • Label items using HB and 2B pencils or waterproof ink with fine-nibbed pens. Never use biros or felt pens.
  • Never use Sellotape. For adhesives, use acid-free gummed paper or linen tapes.

Contacting materials

Any materials in direct contact with paper items need to be high quality. If they are not, damaging substances can transfer onto your paper items and cause discolouration, staining and embrittlement.

Avoid:

  • Wood pulp papers and card
  • Wood, MDF and painted surfaces
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic sleeves
  • Paperclips, elastic bands, staples, Post-it notes, self-adhesive tapes and lables
  • Dry mount adhesive

Invest in good quality materials. They may cost a little more, but they save you the expense of trying to restore damaged items and preserve your collections for future generations. Go to conservation suppliers to pick up paper, card or plastic for storing items.

Paper and card can be easily labelled and are often cheaper than plastic. Plastic, however, is often transparent, so items can be viewed with minimal handling. Don't use plastics on loose media such as charcoal as static can remove loose media from the paper.

Qualities of good paper:

  • Made from 100% cotton fibres or high-percentage of alpha cellulose fibres
  • May be buffered or unbuffered
  • Contains molecular sieves to trap airborne pollutants

Qualities of good plastics:

  • Free from plasticisers and coatings
  • Inert

Unstable objects

Some paper objects in your collection will be made from unstable materials and will deteriorate quickly. Modern newspapers, cheap paperback books and faxes on thermally treated paper will degrade faster than other objects. A cool, dry environment will slow down this decay, as will conservation grade display cases. Handle such objects infrequently and make copies before they deteriorate entirely.

Read more

For a general introduction to collections care, as well as more guidance on running a museum, read our advice guides. Alternatively, pick up tips from the Collections Trust, who have further information on preserving your museum's artefacts.

These books have in-depth guidance on specific elements of collections care:

  • PD 5454:2012 Guide for the storage and exhibition of archival materials (British Standards Institution, 2012)
  • The Care of Prints and Drawings (Ellis, M.H. American Association of State and Local History, 1987, ISBN 0910050791)
  • The Care of Fine Books (Greenfield, J. Skyhorse Publishing, 2014, ISBN 162873793X)
  • The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping (Butterworth-Heinemann; The National Trust 2006 (Revised 2011) ISBN 1907892189)