Heritage, Volume 2, Number 3, Summer 1985 Page: 19
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their collections. In the next few pages we
will talk about what you can do in your
home to help preserve your historic paper
PROBLEMS TO CONSIDER
Environment plays a major role in determining
the well-being of any collection,
large or small. Heat, light, humidity, and
atmospheric pollution determine the rate
of deterioration. Control of these factors
will help to slow down this rate. Note that
I said slow down, not stop. All things deteriorate,
but with the proper precautions
we can slow down the rate of deterioration
until perhaps, one day, there will be a
cure for aging. As a friend once jokingly
said, "If we could store our important
stuff at the event horizon of a black hole,
where for practical purposes time doesn't
exist, our problems would be solved!"
Heat is one of the more easily controlled
problems we have to deal with. The ideal
temperature for paper storage is 50 to
65F. However, that is slightly uncomfortable
for living areas, and such a temperature
is virtually impossible to attain and
retain in a Texas summer. The important
thing to keep in mind is the range of temperature.
Keeping the temperature constant
will go a long way towards preserving
paper and, as high temperatures
accelerate deterioration, good air conditioning
is a must in the hot Texas summers.
An extreme example of the effect
of heat is the cosmetic "aging" of a piece
of paper by holding it near a candle
flame - the paper darkens, curls and becomes
brittle in seconds. Heat is also
transferred through walls. The wall above
a fireplace or radiator can get very hot and
damage paper; this location should be
avoided for storing and housing material
as well as safety reasons.
Light, especially the ultraviolet (UV)
portion, is also very damaging to paper.
All light causes fading and embrittlement,
not just direct sunlight. Light damages
in various amounts according to the
UV content. An easy way to judge how
"bad" a light source is, is by its color: the
"bluer" the light, the more dangerous.
Northlight, of which artists are very fond,
is very blue, and is just as damaging as
direct light, although the effects may take
longer to notice. Thus fluorescent light,
which is very high in UV, is more damaging
than incandescent light (our yellow,
everyday light bulb), which is more
damaging than red light. Extra care must
be taken with incandescent light, however,
since it also produces a large amount
of heat, and must not be allowed too close
to an artifact.
Humidity can be problematic in a number
of ways. Lack of it causes things to dry
out and become brittle. On the other
hand, too much humidity can weaken
paper, making it limp and less resistant to
stress. But the most serious problem
caused by excess humidity (above 70%
for an extended period of time) is the formation
of mold and mildew on and in the
paper. Mold spores are in the air around
us and, if the right combination of heat
and humidity occur, the spores will settle
down and propagate. This growing mold
destroys the paper fibers, and leaves ugly
stains as well.
Insects play a large part in the destruction
and disfigurement of paper artifacts. Not
only do they eat the paper, the sizing (usually
starch), and the leather in books, but
they leave ugly stains as the reminders of
their presence. Below is a listing of the
most common paper damaging insects.
Silverfish: They prefer warm, damp,
dark places. They like starch and other
sizing and will eat their way through
paper to get to it, but they won't turn down
a little wood-pulp paper for a change of
Termites and woodworms: Of course
we know they eat wood, but don't forget
that paper is made from cellulose, as is
wood, and so termites will eat paper if
they get the chance! Woodworms leave
characteristic winding tunnels in paper
Cockroaches: Ugh! They grow them bigger
in Texas! They like warm dark places,
and usually come out at night. They leave
dirty, dark tracks over everything, and
cause surface damage to parchment,
leather, and paper.
Most people don't think of air pollution as
a significant factor in the deterioration of
paper. The most harmful contaminant in
air is sulfur dioxide. This gas is produced
by the combustion or burning of fossil
fuels, such as coal and oil, and is a major
constituent of smog. Since cars run on
gasoline, an oil derivative, and we heat
and cook with natural gas, air pollution is
around us constantly! Paper absorbs sulfur
dioxide, which, when combined with
the moisture in the air, forms sulfuric
acid. The acid destroys the paper, making
it brown and brittle in the process. Sulfur
compounds and by-products also alter certain
artists' pigments, darkening and discoloring
The last, but not the least, problem to
consider is people themselves. We can
cause more damage through good intentions
and carelessness than one would
think possible. Reading a book with a coffee
cup and cigarette in hand is one example
that comes to mind. It's so easy to
drop ash on a page, or spill some coffee!
Repairing a tear with scotch tape or masking
tape is another example, and one that
causes conservators to gnash their teeth
and pull out their hair. Adhesive tape
stains paper badly, and can be very difficult
to remove even after a short time.
Carrying a framed picture by one corner,
pulling a book out by hooking a finger
into the spine. . .I think you can begin to
see the myriad ways people can inadvertently
aid in the destruction of paper and
Now that we've seen the dark side of the
clouds, let's let in a little light on how we
can help preserve our heirlooms.
This category includes letters, maps,
prints, drawings, and watercolor paintings,
as well as documents such as deeds,
titles, and wills. There are a number of
steps you can take to care for your flat
1. Unfold letters and documents and
store them flat whenever possible. You
can obtain polyester (Mylar) sleeves' in
which to store them; these allow handling
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 2, Number 3, Summer 1985, periodical, August 1, 1985; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45444/m1/19/: accessed October 15, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.