Care of paper based materials

About

Paper materials make up a large portion of our cultural heritage and take many forms, such as books, artworks, posters, maps, documents, postage stamps and photographs. Paper is relatively fragile, however, there are ways that you can care for it to ensure its longevity. Much of the damage to paper materials occurs through poor handling, inadequate storage and poor display techniques. For example, mould can be the result of damp storage conditions, and various mounting materials can cause staining and discolouration.

Some general recommendations are given below.

Environmental conditions for storage

Updated environmental recommendations from the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) and other professional bodies agree that temperature and relative humidity guidelines should be achievable within the local climate. The guidelines for temperate locations such as Sydney are to keep the temperature between 15°C and 25°C and the relative humidity (RH) generally between 45% and 55% RH, with occasional larger short-term fluctuations to 40% or 60% allowed.

In a non-museum setting these conditions are difficult to achieve. The aim is to provide as stable an environment as possible. Higher temperature and humidity will increase degradation of paper and can lead to mould growth. Extreme fluctuations can cause distortion and subsequent damage to paper items. Further detailed explanations can be found in the AICCM Environmental Guidelines.

Storage conditions

  • Avoid using an attic or basement as a storage area. Conditions in these areas fluctuate greatly. If possible, use a storage location in the centre of a building as these areas are less influenced by the weather and experience less fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity (RH).
  • Keep light to a minimum. Avoid strong light sources and direct sunlight, as these will accelerate the degradation and fading processes as well as potentially affect temperature and RH.
  • Keep material away from heat sources and avoid contact with any potentially damp locations such as bathrooms, kitchens, laundries and external walls.
  • Keep storage areas clean and ventilated to reduce the risk of pests and mould.

Long-term storage

  • Check the condition of items before placing in storage. Sort items into groups, according to their condition, media and format.
  • Gently dust and clean the items using a soft-bristle brush (an unused shaving brush is ideal). This will help ensure any insects are removed and reduce the risk of mould.
  • Place valuable, fragile, and items in need of repair in archival boxes/envelopes or use acid-free paper to wrap the items. This will provide additional protection, as well as keeping pieces together.
  • Do not repair items. Any self-adhesive tape, even 'magic invisible mending tape' can cause harm. If an item has been damaged by sticky tape, seek the advice of a professional conservator.
  • Lay items flat in archival (acid-free) boxes, or use ordinary boxes lined with acid-free paper. Valuable or fragile items should be individually wrapped or interleaved.
  • Store material off the floor (e.g. on shelves) to reduce the risk of damp and to reduce the risk of damage in the event of a leak or a flood.
  • Choose a storage room without overhead pipes if possible or place the material away from any overhead pipes.
  • If using sticky pest traps to monitor insect activity, ensure that these do not come in direct contact with the items.
  • Avoid the use of pesticides if possible and on no account apply pesticides to collection items.

Books

  • If books are musty, air them in a dry, sunny area and brush the surface with a soft brush (do this outside) before packing.
  • Check for insects and unhatched eggs. Remove these with a soft brush before storage.
  • Wrap leather-bound books in archival paper if packing into boxes or cartons.
  • If using boxes for storage use several smaller boxes instead of one large one.
  • Shelve books upright so that they are supported on either side. Shelve books of a similar size together. If the binding is damaged or fragile, you may keep the book flat.
  • When shelving books, do not pack them tightly. 
  • When retrieving a book from a bookcase, do not pull the book from the top of the spine using one finger. Grip the binding at the middle of the spine. 
  • Do not push books to the rear of a shelf. The space between the book, wall and shelf provides air circulation space.

Artworks and documents

  • Store artworks and documents in folders or keep them mounted and framed. In the case of works with fragile or delicate surfaces such as unfixed charcoal or chalk drawings, they should be mounted to avoid abrasion and smudging.
  • For long-term protection, mounts should be made from 100% rag, acid-free, alkaline buffered mountboard; this is sometimes called 'museum board'. The mount should have front and back boards and the item should be hinged to the backboard. Conservators prefer to use Japanese paper hinges and wheat starch paste because they are stable and long lasting.
  • Frames can be fitted with glass or acrylic. Items with loose powdery media should be framed with glass to avoid static from acrylic glazing. In all cases there should be no contact between the item and the glazing.
  • Do not store framed items on the floor. Stand upright on blocks or pieces of foam if they cannot be hung or shelves are not available.
  • Avoid rolling oversize items. If this is unavoidable, roll the item onto a wide diameter (at least 10 cm) cardboard tube, which has been wrapped with Tyvek™ or acid-free tissue. Wrap the rolled item with Tyvek™ or acid-free tissue.
  • Store documents and letters flat and unfolded in acid-free folders or use polypropylene or polyester bags. These can then be placed in boxes.

Newspapers

Handling

  • It is important to have clean, dry hands or wear nitrile gloves when handling paper-based material.
  • When handling and transporting unframed artworks and documents, use a thick support paper underneath or place your item inside a folder.
  • When carrying a framed work do not lift by the top edge, hold both sides of the frame.
  • If a valuable or fragile item is going to be handled frequently, creating a copy or duplicate can reduce handling of the original and ensure its preservation.

Please note

We are unable to give specific advice on conservation of heritage items. We recommend you contact a professional conservator, who will be able to assess each individual item and recommend options to you. A conservator will charge a fee.

Further information

Fact sheets by the State Library of NSW

Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM)