Unbound Original Documents

Risks of Handling/Use

Generally, handling and use heightens the risk of damage to your materials, be it through neglectful handling (e.g. touching photo emulsion with bare hands) or irresponsible operation of access equipment. This is a risk posed by patrons and staff alike, intentional or not.

Handling and Collections Care

One of the easiest areas to implement protections for collections is through careful handling and sensible collections care. The unfettered use and handling of materials heightens the general risk of damage--be it through neglectful handling (e.g. touching photo emulsion with bare hands) or irresponsible operation of access equipment. Whether intentional or not, this is a risk posed by patrons and staff alike.

Examples of neglect, mishandling, and mismanagement include:

General Recommendations:

Additional Copies

The use of additional copies for reference or display purposes is highly recommended, particularly if the item is an original or valuable. This provides broader access to the content while also protecting the original document from user wear and tear or environmental factors.

Recommendations for care of original object:

To learn more about best practices for use and access, including resources for creating digital surrogates, see Use & Access in the User-Manual.

Orientation in Storage

Oversize items are best stored in a flat file drawer with items kept separate or with like materials of similar dimensions. Items should be interleaved with acid-free sheets in specially tailored folders, which have been cut from acid-free, buffered paper. Enclosures and folders may be stored in hanging files or archival storage boxes.

Storage Container


If your item has any kind of labeling on the container, the item itself, or any related material, we highly recommend that you return to the Basic Info section and enter this information in the appropriate field(s).

Labeling on a container or on the item itself, if it is in fact correct, can offer important clues about its content. If you are replacing a container that holds labeling information, it is important to transfer this information to the new container or label. Be sure to copy down any titles, dates, or other data found on these items; and, save your notes. Container labels should be used with caution as they are frequently reused or easily switched by accident.

For sleeves and folders especially, remember that it's generally best to label with a no. 2 pencil. If ink must be used (i.e. on a plastic enclosure), use an archival pigment-ink pen (e.g. Micron).

Physical Damage

Regardless of its acidity and inherent vice, all paper is susceptible to tearing and other forms of mechanical damage. Water exposure can affect the structural integrity of paper, leading to desiccated or brittle paper, which is more easily torn and damaged through handling. If paper has been folded, creased areas will be especially vulnerable to tearing.

Unbound paper may be damaged by fasteners like paper clips, and they are especially at risk during removal of fasteners. Metal fasteners that are not stainless steel will eventually corrode, and plastic fasteners may cause warping. For information on the correct removal of fasteners, consult the NEDCC leaflet on the Removal of Damaging Fasteners from Historic Documents.

Impact of Damage on Visual Information

When evaluating the impact of damage on visual information, look for mechanical damage as well as deterioration and decay that obscures or limits access to information. This could include yellowing and embrittlement, both types of damage especially symptomatic of newsprint and other wood pulp papers. Damage could also include fading, darkening, warping, cockling, blocking (especially of coated papers), tearing, mold, and insect infestation.

Mold / Pest Damage

Pests like insects and rodents tend to like paper and textile materials. High humidity (higher than 68% RH) promotes mold growth and insect infestation, both of which can cause permanent damage. When assessing the exposure of your collections to pests, it is necessary to look not just at the materials themselves and their containers, but also to look at the larger environment. Insects and rodents tend to leave droppings in areas they inhabit. Insects tend to leave behind a substance called frass, which is the undigested fibers from paper. If you see droppings and/or frass in the storage area, it is a strong sign that your materials are being exposed to pests. Small, irregular holes on paper-based enclosures are also a sign that pests have attacked your materials.

Some tips for reducing your materials' exposure to pests are to refrain from eating anywhere near your collections materials. Crumbs draw pests, so keep food far away from your collections. Another tip applying to both pests and mold is to be cautious about donated materials when you receive them. Pests and mold can hitch a ride into your facility on these materials, so having a good, clean staging area where you can inspect donated items for, among other things, pest and mold evidence can help you reduce your storage environments' exposure to both.

Paper Decay

Paper is sensitive to light and water exposure, high humidity, and high heat. Exposure to light and/or heat will accelerate deterioration in the form of yellowing and sometimes embrittlement.

Acidic paper (pH below 7.0) commonly exhibits both deteriorative traits. Colored media on the paper support will fade rapidly. Water exposure can ultimately lead to desiccated or brittle paper, making it more easily torn or damaged through handling. Fluctuating temperature and RH may result in warping or cockling of the paper surface. High humidity (higher than 68% RH) promotes mold growth and insect infestation, both of which can cause permanent damage.

Even pH neutral papers will become increasingly acidic over time. This is due to the fact that cellulose naturally generates acids as it ages. Papers, including book leaves, that are darker and more brittle along their edges than center demonstrate an absorption of airborne pollutants that have formed acids.

Soil and dust may become ground into paper fibers, permanently soiling or staining the paper surface. Foxing is a common form of paper deterioration, which manifests as reddish-brown spots or blotches that appear embedded in the paper surface. Foxing is caused by a number of factors, but it is commonly spurred along by high humidity.

Ink/Media Deterioration

Characteristics of ink and other media vary depending on their composition and method of formulation. As such, the stability of media has a long-term effect on its paper support, and vice versa. It should be assumed that all media has potential to fade under extreme light exposure and that ink will bleed or transfer if exposed to moisture.

Carbon pigment ink is the earliest type of ink. It can be identified by its deep black color and occasional slight surface sheen. Historically, black pigment was derived from mixing either charcoal (carbonized wood) or fine soot with a gum arabic or oil carrier. Carbon printing ink is very common in books and text forms (e.g. letterpress, typescript [typewriter ink], and offset lithography). If it is oil-based, the printed text may exhibit slight toning beyond its edges ("halo" effect) and/or shadow onto adjacent pages. Good quality carbon inks do not discolor with age and are typically very water stable. Poor quality carbon inks may turn a brown color over time. Additionally, these inks can have flaking problems, especially if they are thickly applied or applied to a polished (highly calendered) paper.

Dye color inks are found primarily in writing instruments, such as ball-point and felt-tip pens, and by many inkjet printers. Synthetic aniline dye emerged in the mid-19th century as a cheap and broadly useful colorant. It was quickly adopted for the letterpress copy process precisely because of its water solubility, which allowed transfer from a source letter to its copy paper. The most common issues with dye inks are their poor light stability and their high sensitivity to moisture. If an object becomes wet or damp, dye color inks can bleed or run. Aniline dye ink can also be pH sensitive and fade or shift color in alkaline environments.

Iron gall (iron gallotannate) ink was the most predominant type of writing and drawing ink for many centuries. It was inexpensive, could be easily produced at home, and, most significantly, was ideal for use on parchment/vellum. Due to its abundance, iron gall ink was popular with architects, map makers, and artists from the 17th to 19th century. The manufacture of iron gall ink involves mixing tannic acids (oak-tree galls) with vitriol (iron sulfate). Iron gall inks inherently contain sulfuric acid, which can lead to corrosion and disintegration of the support. Likewise, oxidation of the iron compounds present in the ink may lead to ink corrosion, also known as acid hydrolysis. Iron gall ink was also used in copybook applications when mixed with water-soluble dyes. After around 1860, it became common to use water-soluble blue aniline dyes to mix with iron gall ink. These delicate copy papers will be especially susceptible to the effects of corrosion.

For assistance evaluating symptoms of media deterioration, see Common Types of Media.