Preserving Personal Books and Papers

The key to extending the life of your books and papers is not necessarily in repairing them, but in preventing damage from occurring.

More than anything else, preservation involves control of storage conditions, plus regularly checking through your collections to make sure no harmful situations have arisen (such as mold or insect infestations). If proper conditions are maintained, books and papers may last several times as long as they would have otherwise.

Storage Conditions to Avoid

  • High humidity. Paper-based materials survive best in low or moderate relative humidity (RH). It also helps to keep the humidity as stable as possible. The AMNH Library keeps its books and documents at about 40-45% RH, but this may not be easy to achieve for a private collection. It is important to try to keep the RH below 65%, as after even a few days of humidity this high in a warm room (70 degrees Fahrenheit or above), mold may develop. Warm, humid conditions also encourage insect infestations. Books and papers should not be stored against outside walls, on damp floors, or anywhere they might be exposed to water. Basements and garages are usually not safe storage places for these materials.
  • Heat. High temperatures can be very harmful to paper, as they hasten its chemical deterioration. Generally speaking, the rate of this deterioration theoretically doubles for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit rise in temperature. The temperature in non-air-conditioned attics and garages in the summer months may well be high enough to damage books and papers.
  • Light. All light (especially sunlight and fluorescent light) is damaging to books and paper; it causes fading and contributes to some chemical deterioration. Typical results of light damage include fading, browning or other discoloration of pictures and documents hung on walls, and fading of book spines. Some materials are more sensitive than others, and will change noticeably in a short time if kept in bright light.

Materials to Avoid

  • Rubber cement. This turns brown after a few years, and stains the paper; as the adhesive ages, it also loses its ability to hold things together.
  • Adhesive tapes. Any self-adhesive tape, such as "Magic Mending" tape or drafting tape may cause serious problems over time. For instance, mended paper which is weak may break along the edge of the tape used to repair a tear. The adhesives used can sink into the paper, staining it, and blurring some writing inks.
  • Rubber bands. These turn sticky, then hard. They will eventually break or worse, stick to whatever they are in contact with.
  • Paper clips. These make dents in paper, and can tear it when removed. They also rust.
  • Vinyl. This type of plastic is chemically unstable, and should be avoided when choosing notebooks, scrapbooks, and photograph albums. Inert plastics such as polyester (Mylar D, or Melinex 516), Polypropylene, and polyethylene are much safer to use.

General Tips

  • Take steps to protect your materials from damage by fire, water, high temperatures and humidity, light, dust and soot, insects and rodents.
  • Use "archival quality" (acid-free, alkaline buffered, or inert) boxes, envelopes, file folders, plastic page protectors, etc. to store your documents. (See list of suppliers.) Keep acidic papers such as newsprint away from other materials.
  • Handle fragile materials carefully. Do not allow books on shelves to lean; once they become warped it is often impossible to return them to their original shape. Do not use books as coasters, doorstops, tables, or flower presses.
  • For those items requiring conservation treatment, consult a qualified conservator. You can find one in your area by calling the Conservation Services Referral System of the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, or by writing to the American Institute for Conservation, 1717 K St., N.W., Suite 301, Washington, DC, 20006. Phone: (202)452-9545, Fax: (202)452-9328.