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Care of paper-based materials
General advice on caring for paper-based materials like books, photos, documents and more.
Paper materials that need care include books, artworks, posters, maps, documents, postage stamps, photographs and more.
Paper is relatively fragile, but there are ways to ensure its longevity. Most of the damage to paper materials occurs through poor handling, inadequate storage and poor display techniques.
Environmental conditions for storage
- Environmental recommendations from the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) and other professional bodies agree that temperature and relative humidity guidelines can be met within the local climate.
- In temperate locations like Sydney, the guidelines state that the temperature should be kept between 15°C and 25°C and the relative humidity (RH) between 45% and 55% RH, with occasional larger short-term fluctuations to 40% or 60%. In non-museum settings, these conditions are difficult to achieve.
- The aim is to provide as stable an environment for paper materials 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.
- For more information, read the AICCM Environmental Guidelines.
- Avoid using an attic or basement as a storage area as conditions in those areas fluctuate greatly. Use a storage location in the centre of a building as these areas are less influenced by the weather and temperature fluctuations.
- Keep light to a minimum. Avoid strong light sources and direct sunlight, as these will accelerate degradation and fading.
- Keep material away from heat sources and avoid contact with any potentially damp locations like bathrooms, kitchens, laundries and external walls.
- Choose a storage room without overhead pipes if possible or place the material away from any overhead pipes.
- Keep storage areas clean and ventilated to reduce the risk of pests and mould.
- Sort items into groups, according to their condition, media and format.
- Check the condition of items before placing in storage.
- Gently dust and clean the items using a soft-bristle brush to ensure any insects are removed and reduce the risk of mould. An unused shaving brush is ideal.
- Place valuable or fragile items, and items for repair in archival boxes, or use acid-free paper to wrap them. This will provide additional protection and keep pieces together.
- Don’t repair items. Self-adhesive tape, even ‘magic invisible mending tape’, can cause harm. If an item has been damaged by sticky tape, contact a professional conservator.
- Lay items flat in archival 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 on shelves to reduce the risk of damp or damage in the event of a leak or a flood.
- If using sticky pest traps to monitor insect activity, ensure they don’t directly touch material.
- Avoid using pesticides in the storage space and never apply pesticides to collection items.
- If books are musty, air them outside in a dry, sunny area and brush with a soft brush before packing.
- Check for insects or unhatched eggs and remove with a soft brush.
- 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, 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 in folders or keep them mounted and framed. Keep works with fragile or delicate surfaces, such as unfixed charcoal or chalk drawings, mounted to avoid abrasion and smudging.
- For long-term protection, mounts should be made from 100% rag, acid-free, alkaline-buffered mountboard, 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.
- Due to the nature of the paper, they have very short life spans. A separate fact sheet on storing newspapers is available.
- It is important to have clean and 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, lift and 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.
Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM)
If you have further questions or would like specific advice about conservation, please contact us through Ask a Librarian
We are unable to give advice on the conservation treatment of heritage items. We recommend you contact a professional conservator, who can assess each item and recommend options. A conservator will charge a fee.