How do we protect our precious objects from damage? Take a sneak peek inside the treasure trove with Archivist Helen.

Archives are treasure troves of evidence on a wide range of topics. They are used by historians, specialists, and the wider public to learn more about how events of the past impacted on society and influence current events.

These records can be centuries old, for example, The National Archives holds the original Domesday book dating to 1086, while the British Library has a copy of the Magna Carta from 1215. The age of these records and the materials they are made from mean that they require specialist care and storage to make sure that researchers can continue to consult them in the future.

The records held in the archives at the Postal Museum are not quite as old as those mentioned above. The oldest item is over 300 years old and is a letter from the Postmaster General to the Mayor of Hull ordering him to stop operating a private postal service.

Handwritten letter signed by Thomas Witherings. The writing is in secretary hand, a typical style of handwriting in this period.

Letter from the Postmaster General to the Mayor of Hull, 1636/37 (POST 23/1)

These records still require proper care and storage conditions to protect them from damage. In this blog, I will explore some of the materials archivists use to protect the records in our care. I will also look at the materials which cause the most damage to records.

The Goodies

Four flap folders

When records arrive at the museum, they may have damaged edges from being used in offices. Every time someone casually flips through a file the edges of the pages are damaged. Over time this damage results in tears and rough edges. If the rough edges are exposed they can catch on other materials resulting in further damage. These folders provide protection to avoid damage, they also keep different records separate when they are stored together.

Four flap folder opened to show pages on the left hand flap. Several small tears are shown on the right hand edge of the pages

Slightly damaged pages in four flap folder

The folders, and most of the packaging materials used in archives, are acid free. This is important as high acid content in paper causes it to yellow and become brittle. Most mass produced paper has a high acid content. In particular, newspapers are often printed on low quality, high acid, paper as this is cheap to produce. Therefore, newspapers turn yellow and deteriorate quickly.

A faded and slightly yellow newspaper cutting pasted into a volume

Newspaper cutting showing fading and deterioration due to age

Environment sensor

Organic materials such as paper, parchment, and vellum are sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Frequent changes to temperature and humidity can result in the materials deteriorating. The biggest risk is sudden changes to conditions, gradual changes can be tolerated more easily.

Avoiding any changes to the temperature and humidity is very demanding for air conditioning systems and can be costly for both the museum and the environment. Therefore, rather than maintaining constant conditions we allow small and gradual changes. These sensors are positioned in the stores and display areas to allow us to monitor the conditions on an ongoing basis so we can make any adjustments necessary.

Environment sensor which is a small square box in the bottom right hand corner of a display case. The case includes a red River Postman’s frock coat with black cuffs.

Environment sensor in display case

It is easier to minimise sudden changes in conditions in the stores as people do not usually spend long periods of time in there. The conditions in the display areas can be more challenging as we need to create an environment which is comfortable for visitors as well as protecting the items on display. By placing the most sensitive items in display cases we can control the conditions within the case while keeping the wider display area at a more comfortable temperature.

a line chart with temperature measures on the left hand side and humidity on the right hand side. Across the chart is a blue line and a red line, both are fairly flat

Output from an environmental sensor showing changes to temperature and humidity over time

Pest traps

Inks, glue, paper, parchment, and vellum can all offer a food source for a range of pests, such as silverfish, booklice, beetles, and rodents. We try to avoid anything that might attract pests to the building, and especially to the areas we store the records. This includes strict rules on food and drink – we don’t allow these in the stores or Discovery Room.

We also have a regular cleaning programme to remove anything which might attract pests. As well as taking steps to avoid attracting pests to the building we also use these pest traps to quickly identify any potential issues and take steps to address it before significant damage is caused to the collections.

small triangular pest trap made from folded cardboard, on the floor. The rear wheel of a motorbike is also shown

Pest trap in gallery space

Cotton tape

We use cotton tape to secure four flap folders or boxes. We also tie it around rolls of maps or plans to prevent them unrolling. The tape is wider than other materials such as string or elastic bands and is, therefore, less likely to cause damage to the material it is securing. As with the folders, it is acid free and is also undyed to prevent any colour transfer to the records.

Rolled documents secured in two places with white cotton tape

Cotton tape used to secure packaging on this roll of plans.

Gloves

Gloves are perhaps one of the most controversial items used by archivists. The media have frequently used the image of white gloves to convey the value and fragility of historic documents. However, for material such as paper, parchment, and vellum, archivists very rarely use gloves.

Clean, dry hands are preferable for handling this material as gloves (especially cotton gloves) can reduce the sensitivity of touch, resulting in careless handling and damage to the documents. Gloves also get dirty and transfer this dirt between the records.

One pair of small white cotton gloves. The gloves overlap slightly

White cotton gloves

Some materials do require the use of gloves. This includes metal objects, photographs, and textiles. We may also wear gloves if we are checking for mould, as this poses health risks to staff. When gloves are required we use nitrile gloves which are thinner than cotton ones and don’t reduce the sensitivity of touch to the same extent.

a black and white photograph of a pillar box and sign post is held in two hands wearing purple nitrile gloves. One hand is on the left hand edge, the other holds the bottom right hand corner

Using nitrile gloves to handle a photograph

The Baddies

Below are some of the materials which give archivists nightmares.

Adhesive tape

Some of the records in the archive have been repaired with adhesive tape, commonly referred to as Sellotape, before being given to the archive. Those carrying out the repairs often believed they were doing the right thing to protect the record from further damage and keep damaged pages together.

Unfortunately, adhesive tape dries out over time, which results in it lifting away from the paper, while the glue results in unpleasant discolouration. Safely removing adhesive tape can be a complicated and time-consuming process.

Close up of adhesive tape in the centre of two pages in a volume. The tape is yellow and lifting up

Adhesive tape has been used to secure a loose page in this volume (POST 38/285)

Metal attachments

Common office items such as paperclips and staples can be damaging to records in the long term. These items are prone to rust which results in discolouration to the pages and can make the attachments difficult to remove without causing further damage. They also create pressure on the pages where they are fastened. This can impact how the pages are turned and result in tears around the point where the paperclip or staple is.

Rusty paperclip at the top left hand corner of page. The paperclip has been angled slightly to show the brown mark on the paper underneath

Rusty paperclip leaving rust marks on the paper underneath

Elastic bands

Files often arrive bundled together with elastic bands or string. Both these items can be too tight causing the files to warp or tear. Elastic bands cause additional problems as they become both sticky and brittle as they age. This can result in fragments of elastic being stuck to files which is difficult to remove without damaging the underlying paper, at the same time the elastic no longer serves its original purpose of keeping the file together.

Folder cover with a significant horizontal tear about half way up the folder. There is a hand holding the top part of the cover to highlight where the fold is

Tear probably caused by tight fastenings and careless handling

Food and drink

As mentioned above food and drink is tightly controlled in the archive. These items can attract pests which will then eat records once the initial food source is exhausted. Another reason we avoid food and drink is that it can easily be spilt on the records resulting in stains and weakening of the paper.

Despite all this, archivists do enjoy eating and drinking and are especially keen on sweet treats – just as long as there are no archives in harm’s way! We enjoyed this glorious cake in celebration of the award of Archive Service Accreditation.

Rectangular cake with chocolate icing and an image of a greetings telegram. The telegram shows two cherubs carrying a cake. Also shows the Archive Service Accreditation and The Postal Museum logos

Cake to celebrate the award of Archive Service Accreditation

Come and see some of these materials on display in the Discovery Room on the first floor of The Postal Museum from 14 January 2020.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist