(+) How Safe Are Your Old Documents?

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

Old_documentA number of us are fortunate enough to own old books, birth certificates, marriage certificates, naturalization certificates, old newspaper clippings, or other family heirloom documents that we want to preserve. What condition will they be in 20 or 50 years from now? For that matter, will the fruits of your genealogy labor be available to your descendants 200 years from now? You should take steps now to make sure the documents remain in the best possible condition. I thought I would discuss the techniques of document preservation a bit more in this newsletter.

Very old books and other paper documents are rather easy to preserve if a few basic precautions are followed. Modern day paper is made from wood pulp. The manufacturing process extracts cellulose from the wood, and then paper is manufactured from the cellulose fibers. Although pure cellulose is extremely durable, the various additives can cause deterioration, usually through acid degradation of the fibers. The life expectancy of most modern paper can be as short as 50 years. Even worse, documents you produce on your laser printer may not last that long. The toner that substitutes for ink in modern laser printers probably will not last as long as the paper it adheres to. Once upon a time, toner was made of carbon, which lasts a long time. However, carbon turned out to be carcinogenic so manufacturers switched to various plastic compounds. Neither carbon nor plastic will stick to paper forever. In fact, if rubbed occasionally, even by the expansion and contraction that occurs during temperature variations, the toner will easily rub off.

Older paper, including most paper manufactured prior to 1880, was made from rags. You can still purchase rag-based paper today, but you need to seek it out and also pay a higher price for it. Rag-based paper has less acid than cellulose-based paper. As a result, properly handled books and documents created in the 1800s or earlier may last for centuries. Even old Civil War newspapers will last longer than today’s papers.

There are issues with all paper, however, including that produced by rag-based manufacturing methods. Paper is not chemically inert; it is easily soiled or stained, and it swells and contracts with the humidity of the environment. In fact, the swelling and contraction is a big issue with older books. The simple swelling and contraction over the years can destroy pages as well as book bindings.

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