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Conservation of Archives and Ephemera

By Chris Woods and Stephen Ball

Most museums hold a range of miscellaneous documents and papers whose value lies principally in their content. Journals, genealogies, plans, inventories, diaries, deeds, share certificates, bills of exchange, accounts and other substantial records have obvious archival importance. Yet there is also historical value in newspapers, posters, playbills, tickets, cuttings and many other 'ephemeral' objects that were not intended to last.

Paper is the dominant material for these objects, though some older deeds and manuscripts are made of parchment. The quality of these materials varies widely; the intentionally transient nature of ephemera often meant that poor-quality materials were used to produce them.

All archival objects must be handled and stored with care, whether they are from past centuries or merely a few weeks old. In particular, seek advice from a conservator or your Area Museum Council before working with documents or records made of poor-quality materials.


This fact sheet concentrates on paper and parchment documents.


The raw material of all types of paper is cellulose obtained from vegetable fibres. The fibres are combined into a mat and bound with adhesive additives, and may be further treated to provide other desirable qualities such as whiteness. In Western papermaking, the best fibres come from linen, cotton or hemp, often obtained from rags. Their simple cellulose structure and long fibres lend great strength and durability to the resulting paper. Rag-made papers were unsuitable for the increasingly industrialised publishing industries of the nineteenth century, so their use is now restricted to prestige or craft projects where the high quality of handmade paper is important.

Esparto grass once enjoyed some popularity as a source of reasonably good book papers, but most twentieth century papers are made from another compound cellulose or wood. Wood pulp is relatively cheap and easy to process in large quantities, and the resulting paper runs well through high-speed modern presses and machinery. Wood may be added to other paper to modify its properties; some present-day papers, including newsprints, have plastics added to the mix.

The long-fibres of simple cellulose rag papers resist tearing and repeated folding more effectively than the shorter fibres of compound cellulose wood-based papers. And although no paper is chemically inert, wood-pulp produces far more reactive and thus shorter-lived paper than rag. Chemical processing improves the qualities of wood-based papers beyond those of the untreated 'mechanical' forms. Poorer-quality mechanical papers such as traditional newsprints sometimes betray their origin with identifiable chips of wood embedded in the paper. The quality of papers therefore varies widely, but the care and conservation requirements are broadly the same for all types.


Parchment is made from animal skins commonly sheepskin. These are dried and limed to produce a stiff and light-coloured surface suitable for writing inks.

Higher-quality grades of parchment include 'virgin parchment', made from the skins of new-born lambs or kids, and vellum, a burnished parchment made from calf, kid or lamb skin. (So-called 'vegetable parchment' is a paper treated with sulphuric acid to give it a parchment-like appearance.)

The Risks

Archival materials are at risk from four principal sources: mechanical damage, heat, moisture and light.

Mechanical Damage

By their very nature, archival documents are likely to be accessed for their content. Frequent use will result in creasing, tearing, soiling and staining, and even casual or malicious marking with pencil or ink.

Strategies to reduce mechanical damage must combine the direct protection of the object - for example, with a transparent sleeve - with a rational and consistently applied system of storage and access management.

Heat and moisture

These two characteristics act together and must be managed together. Stability is as important as the absolute value of these parameters. Monitor and control your temperature and RH levels, and avoid large or rapid variations.

Excess heat dries papers and parchments, making them less pliable and more brittle. Both materials have a natural moisture content that must be maintained. Dried-out documents are likely to crack and split in use, probably along existing folds and weak spots.

Excess moisture creates a weaker, less coherent material - the fragility of soggy paper is a familiar example - and conditions that favour mould growth and pest attack. Moisture also draws more of the potentially harmful chemicals already present in the material into solution, accelerating chemical decomposition. Chemical instability is a particular problem for low-quality papers. When heat and moisture combine, the effects of each can be increased: for example, mould is almost certain to attack paper and parchment under warm, moist conditions.


Everyone is familiar with the fate of a newspaper left in bright sunlight for a few days. The paper rapidly takes on a yellowish or brownish cast and feels more brittle between the fingers.

Cheap newsprints are extremely reactive and particularly prone to such rapid changes, but light affects all materials used to produce archive and other documents. UV-rich daylight is a potent source of damage, though artificial light sources are capable of similar effects and if close to a document may subject it to heat too.

Yet light is necessary for access: people must be able to see a document. The intensity and duration of light falling on the document has to be reduced to a minimum using UV filters on windows and light sources - which need periodic checking and replacement - and the restriction of light exposure by curtains and time switches where appropriate. Copies (see below) usually represent the safest solution of all, and allow the original document to remain in light-free storage.

Storage and Display

Small museums are unlikely to have enough space to be able to set aside complete rooms for archival storage, but the designated area must be environmentally stable and free from damp, excesses of heat, and undue 'traffic' from visitors or staff.

Objects in book form can be stored on shelves, but loose documents and other similar items are best stored in boxes made of acid-free card or a suitable plastic. The storage area, the boxes or both must be capable of keeping light away from the document. Within the boxes, store individual items in acid-free envelopes (not the manila or white envelopes of ordinary office stationery) or clear plastic sleeves.

Choose conservation-grade sleeves of clear polyester with only one open side and smooth internal surfaces; avoid coloured or translucent plastic, which may contain fillers or other additives. A4 sleeves are readily available from museum suppliers. Never use PVC, even as a short-term solution (see the fact sheet on plastics).

Plastic sleeves, and to a lesser extent paper envelopes, help to shape a multiplicity of different-sized objects into a more uniform system of storage. Very small items such as tickets or bills are far less likely to be lost or overlooked when they are in a sleeve. Resist the temptation to store more than one item in a single sleeve: this carries the risk of abrasion or ink set-off between the items, and makes it far more likely that researchers will have to remove the contents to use them, thus squandering one of the great advantages of storage in clear sleeves.

Archival materials are more likely to be accessed on an individual basis than displayed for general view, but where display is worthwhile the light exposure and mounting of the item are of paramount importance. One option is a closed display cabinet with time-delayed lighting or curtains.

Parchment presents special problems, and must not be mounted or otherwise treated like paper. It is probable that over the centuries a parchment document will have acquired a pronounced curve from rolling or deep creases from folding; these must never be flattened out for display. A copy or replica may be the best approach here.


Effective access control and supervision and good training and awareness among staff and volunteers are the first defence against mechanical damage.

Researchers and other visitors should only use documents in a supervised area set aside for the purpose. Wherever possible, leave items in their plastic sleeves throughout the period of use - a definite advantage of sleeves over opaque envelopes. Wear white cotton gloves when handling vulnerable items (and keep several pairs available to make sure that visitors do the same). Even when wearing gloves, keep your fingers away from the text or other information-bearing areas of the document.

Food, drink, cigarettes, and cleaning or decorating materials should never be used or stored in the vicinity of the items, and ideally not in the same room. Never mark documents, not even with a pencil; and do not attempt to remove or rub out existing marks - you may damage the item, and these marks are part of the document's history. If you decide that a mark or stain represents a long-term threat to a document - because it may provide a medium for mould-growth or a chemical reaction, say - then consult a conservator.


Documents in regular use are valued for their contents, so copies will nearly always be adequate and should be the preferred medium for access. Where a bona fide researcher needs to view the original document, either because some detail of the copy is insufficiently distinct or the object itself is also under study, then a few simple procedures will keep the item safe:

  • Staff must bring items from the store to the researcher;
  • Beware of damage to heavy or awkward items when moving them from storage;
  • Adopt a booking and signing-in/out system for users, and log all access to the item too;
  • Check items before and after use, and return them to store as soon as possible;
  • Allow access in a specially designated and supervised area only;
  • Ensure smooth, level clean surfaces for users, and control the light levels;
  • Match the environments of the access and storage areas as far as possible;
  • Prohibit food and drink, smoking, and pens or other indelible markers;
  • If you allow bags and cases in the reading area, check them before the user leaves;
  • Only staff should be permitted to make copies (e.g. by photocopying).

'Surrogates' and Copying

Copies of documents, often called 'surrogates', are usually the best means of safeguarding archive materials from damage and wear through continued use. Methods and costs vary: fiche and film copies require the services of photographers and other outside agents, and investment in suitable reading equipment; photocopies are cheap and can be produced in-house, but may be of low quality, especially where the original lacks contrast or a clear impression.

All copying processes are a form of use, exposing documents to handling and light.


Research suggests that the light exposure resulting from a single photocopying operation is minimal. However, the risk of mechanical damage is relatively high, especially where the original is not flat or is in book form.

Before undertaking any photocopying project, make sure that the copier is warmed up and in good condition - a machine that is overdue for a service and low on toner will produce bad copies; these will probably need to be redone, increasing the document's net exposure time. The glass window should be scrupulously clean, and free from traces of solvents and cleaning fluids. Adjust optional settings such as light/dark or contrast using scrap items of a similar density, not originals. Your aim should be to expose each item only once.

Rather than take several copies, make one master copy and reuse that for secondary copies in future. Use an acid-free archival quality paper for the master and store it in the same way as other archive items. Keep a record of the operation. One person working alone can comfortably copy single sheets from originals up to A4, and normally up to A3 unless the original is delicate. A second pair of hands is needed for large or unwieldy items, books and anything fragile. For example, the second person will gently ease a book page open on the glass and at the same time support the rest of the binding. Never flatten a book or any other item onto the glass, and never use an automatic feed mechanism. Do not try to photocopy parchment items; seek professional advice.

Photocopies made using resin-based toners on archival papers - not office copier paper - are relatively permanent. Avoid flexing the copy to prevent the toner breaking away from the paper, and store the copy in a polyester sleeve. Even copies for frequent or everyday use are better stored in a plastic sleeve - the longer the copy lasts, the less often the original will have to copied in the future.
A few present-day archival items may be on thermal paper, as used by many fax machines (though not plain-paper faxes), calculators and some older computer printers. This paper is inherently short-lived, and some kind of copying process is essential to preserve the content in the longer term.


Scanning processes produce a copy in a digitised form. This can be stored in a suitable graphics format; some kinds of text may be suitable for processing through an optical character recognition (OCR) program to create digitised text for subsequent manipulation in word processors, DTP software and other means.

The ability to manipulate digitised surrogates raises copyright and integrity issues, but from the object's standpoint, flatbed scanning is similar to photocopying. Make sure that the scanner surfaces are scrupulously clean, do not flex or distort the object, and keep exposure time to a minimum.


Copying operations can breach copyright. Under the revised legislation of 1988, the copyright term for most works under English law was extended from 50 to 70 years after the author's death. The absence of a copyright statement from a document does not mean that it is in the public domain. Transcripts of documents in the public domain themselves become copyright items.

Consult a copyright lawyer or other specialist before composing your copyright policy, and to resolve any uncertainties or tricky issues.

National Legislation and Registration

You are strongly encouraged to submit details of your archival holdings to the National Register of Archives (see details below), which makes your collection accessible to researchers visiting the Register and on the Internet. By law, some types of archive - principally public, parish, tithe and manorial records - must be deposited in county record offices. There are other legislative restrictions that are designed to preserve confidentiality in the case of recent archive materials.

References and Sources of Information

BS 5454, Recommendations for Storage and Exhibition of Archival Documents (2000), is the latest version of the national standard that most archives and libraries use as 'bible' of best practice, even though many archives do not reach this standard.

The National Register of Archives was initiated in 1945 by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. Their website is

The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (also known as the 'Historic Manuscripts Commission' or HMC)
Quality House, Quality Court
Chancery Lane
London WC2A 1HP
Tel: 020 7242 1198
Fax: 020 7831 3550

Advice on archive matters in Scotland is available from:

The National Archives of Scotland, HM General Register House
Edinburgh EH1 3YY
Tel: 0131 535 1314
Fax: 0131 535 1328

Or in Wales, from:

The Convenor, Cyngor Archifau Cymru: Archive Council in Wales. Details of the current contact can be obtained from the local record office or from the RCHM.

Or, in Northern Ireland, from:

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland,
66 Balmoral Avenue,
Belfast BT9 6NT.

Locally, advice is also available from the appropriate local authority record office. Regional Agencies will be able to give guidance on other museums in their region which have developed appropriate archive policies, or tackled particular problems, and whom it may be useful to consult.

Society of Archivists
(Executive Secretary: Pat Cleary)
40 Northampton Road
Tel: 020 7278 8630
Fax: 020 7278 2107

The Standing Conference on Archives and Museum was set up jointly by the Museums Association, Society of Archivists and the Historical Manuscripts Commission. It can be contacted through:
Louise Hampson
Secretary, SCAM
c/o York Minster Library and Archive
Deans Park
York, YO1 2JD
Tel: 01904 557 239
Fax: 01904 557 215

Code of Practice on Archives and Museums (1996) Free from the above address.

A series of SCAM Information Sheets is available. Titles include:

1: Collections Policy and Management
2: Archival Listing and Arrangement
3: Archive Preservation and Conservation
4: Access to Archives

These are available on the SCAM website:

For more information about private conservation work please contact:

Conservation Register
Tel: 020 7721 8246

Conservation Register (Scotland)
Tel: 0131 668 8668

Copies of this fact sheet can be provided in alternative formats. Please contact Viola Lewis, Information Officer at MLA for further information.



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