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Session 4: Caring for Paper Collections


Handling Paper Collections

1 Using Collections | 2 Processing Collections | 3 Special Collections


Artifacts are easily damaged by careless or improper handling. Researchers should be supplied with instructions and supervised at all times when using the collection. Staff, volunteers, and interns also need to be made aware of proper handling techniques through regular training.

1 Using Collections

Certain types of damage to book collections are commonly seen as a result of both use and shelving: headcap damage from pulling books off the shelf; spine damage from forcing books open; tearing and creasing from folding of page corners; and abrasion from being dropped. Documents may be torn, folded, or accidentally marked, while photographs may be damaged by dirt and oils from fingers. Making reference photocopies or digital images of frequently consulted documents and photographs is one way to greatly reduce this sort of damage.

Every time you handle collection materials, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I have a valid reason for picking this up?
  • What is its condition?
  • What is the safest way to hold it?
  • Is it too fragile to lift without a secondary support?
  • Do I need a second person to assist? Do I need a cart or trolley?
  • After I have lifted the object, where will I set it down again?
  • Are my hands clean? Should I wear gloves?

Use of Gloves to Protect Collections During Handling

In many research libraries, users are required to wear white cotton gloves when handling archival and library materials in special collections. This practice has fallen out of favor because white gloves provide limited protection for collections and reduce tactile sensitivity making it difficult to handle collections carefully and ultimately increasing the chances of physical damage. Cotton gloves have many small hairs that can easily catch on brittle edges or worsen an existing tear. Cotton is also very absorbent and thus easily soiled, picking up dirt, dust, and other materials that can then be transferred to the item being handled. Photographs, film, and metals are the exception to this rule. Users should wear gloves when handling photographic materials, since these can be damaged by fingerprints. Objects made from metals that will tarnish such as regalia, silver bindings, and any bindings with metallic boss or embroidery threads should also be handled using gloves. When gloves must be worn for the protection of the user or the collections, lint-free cotton or nitrile (in case of latex allergies) gloves should be worn.

Instead of wearing gloves, it is recommended that users be required to wash and dry their hands carefully before using collections, and to rewash them whenever they begin to feel dirty. Hand washing is preferable to using alcohol-based hand sanitizing gels. While these products may be effective in killing germs, they do not remove dirt and leave behind lotions and oils that can be damaging to collection materials. As stated above, users of library and archival collections should always be instructed in proper handling procedures for the collections they are consulting.

2 Processing Collections

It is important to remember that collections-processing techniques suitable for general collections should not be used on materials with value as artifacts. These procedures include painting call numbers on books; affixing pressure-sensitive labels; and attaching pockets, bookplates, and bar codes (the adhesives may damage the materials and leave a sticky residue when they fail).

Sometimes it may be difficult to know whether books with long-term research value may eventually have value as artifacts. One strategy for processing such materials is to use a polyester book jacket and to label the jacket. If bookplates or pockets are used in books of enduring value, they should be made of low-lignin, alkaline paper and attached with a stable, reversible adhesive, preferably wheat starch paste or methyl cellulose.

Ideally, every fastener on historic documents would be removed during arrangement or cataloging. Depending on the method of processing, a discussion needs to be held with staff and administration to stress the importance of at least removing already corroded staples, paper clips, and pins to prevent further damage. Any non-stainless steel fastener that will be stored in an uncontrolled or unstable environment should be removed as well, to prevent inevitable future corrosion. When possible, remove ephemera such as bookmarks, scraps of paper, and pressed flowers. This will prevent acidity in unstable inserts from migrating into book pages and damaging them, and reduce strain on the structure. If inserts need to be kept in place, house items in small polyester or acid-free, lignin-free, buffered sleeves in the book. If there are too many items to safely store in the book, label the pieces to record the location in the book, and store boxed in folders.

To learn about proper removal of paper clips and staples, see NEDCC Preservation Leaflet 7.8 Removal of Damaging Fasteners from Historic Documents. If papers need to remain clipped together, use an acid-free, lignin-free, buffered paper or polyester (Melinex) barrier between the papers and the clip or use stainless steel paper clips or staples. Never use plastic clips as they cause considerable deformation.

3 Special Collections

When processing special collections materials, the best practice is to use non-damaging methods. Interior markings should only be made in pencil. Painting call numbers on spines or attaching labels with pressure-sensitive tape can be permanently disfiguring or damaging, and may discolor the binding. Call numbers can either be typed onto text-weight, alkaline paper flags placed inside the volume, or placed on a box containing the volume. Flags should be about two inches wide and two to three inches longer than the book is high. Avoid the flags with cut out tabs that fit over the page as they can be damaging. For volumes with powdery leather bindings, a dual solution can be to construct polyester film jackets and place call number labels on the jacket, thus labeling the volume and protecting adjacent volumes from the red rot. 

Attaching bar code labels to special collections materials is not recommended because the books may be damaged by the adhesives or during future removal of the label. If bar codes, RFID tags, or any other adhesive label must be used, the tag can be attached to a flag, on the box, or on a polyester film jacket as mentioned above. 

If bookplates are used, they should be made of acid-free, lignin-free, buffered paper and attached with a stable, reversible adhesive, such as starch paste or methyl cellulose. 

When special collections volumes are used in a reading room, cradles, snakes, and page-turners should be made available to researchers to support stiff and fragile bindings. A helpful video produced by University of Glasgow Archive Services and Special Collections department entitled “Handling Bound Volumes” and for general handling of special collections materials at “Handling Harvard’s Special Collections”