An Attempt to Save South Carolina’s Historical Documents is Destroying Them

This should be a lesson to all genealogists, archivists, historians, and to anyone with old documents or pictures they would like to preserve: Don’t laminate them!

Back in the 1950s, many people thought that laminating something was a method of preserving it. Even some archivists recommended laminating old documents. As the years went by, these people learned the folly of their recommendations. Laminating something actually hastens its deterioration.

For 20 years, beginning in the 1950s, the state of South Carolina laminated documents to protect them from aging. However, a chemical reaction caused the documents to deteriorate faster than they would have had they been left unlaminated. The natural acids from the paper mix with the degrading laminate to create a noxious vinegar. Each passing year will further degrade the document until it’s gone.

“You’re effectively forming an envelope where you’re keeping the acids in the paper, not allowing them to migrate out,” says Molly McGath, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

McGath has written extensively about lamination, and she says South Carolina isn’t the only state with this problem. She says the method was performed around the U.S., and other countries, throughout the 20th century. There are as many as 6 million laminated historical documents.

You can read more about the South Carolina experience in n article by Cooper McKim in the NPR News web site at https://goo.gl/ZpUAKw.

My thanks to newsletter reader Larry Zabik for telling me about this story.

4 Comments

I do have one success story for lamination: My original Social Security card, issued about 1960. I’m quite sure the original card would not still be readable and intact in my billfold today (2017) without lamination.

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    With all due respect, and understanding that you are commenting only on the persistence of one laminated card in the presence of years of use, PLEASE do not carry your Social Security card in your billfold. It exposes you to considerable identity theft risk if you should happen to lose your wallet.

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In the 1980s a well meaning friend who worked in our church library laminated an old marriage certificate my aunt had sent me. Not her marriage but a marriage a couple more generations farther back. Over the years I realized the laminated certificate was becoming more and more difficult to read but I didn’t think there was any way to remove the laminate covering. I made a poor paper copy that is now easier to read than the original. Hopefully a good copy of the original will someday show up online.

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I have had the same experience as Ris Taylor. My birth certificate (in card form) is laminated. It’s almost 50 years old and still as it was when I was a child. I have other laminated cards too that have stood the test of time. Perhaps cards are different. This is a Canadian birth certificate. The US may have a different paper type.

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