Conservation Frequently Asked Questions
Last updated December 2016
- Where can I learn more about the field of conservation?
- Where can I get training to become a conservator?
- Does the Harry Ransom Center conservation department staff train volunteers?
- Can you tell me how much my item is worth?
- How can I best preserve my valuable documents, books, and photographs?
- How will I know when a storage product is "good quality" or "archival?"
- Should photographic material be stored in neutral or alkaline materials?
- How do I frame my document to best preserve it?
- Where's the best place to hang a framed original?
- How do I keep my documents from fading?
- The ink on my documents has faded. How can I make it darker to read?
- My papers have holes in and near the ink. What is this and what can I do to protect my documents?
- My documents and book pages are torn. What archival and safe material can I use to repair the damage?
- Which archival tapes should I use to fix my keepsakes?
- My book covers are orange and powdery. What is this and what do I do to stop it?
- My leather book covers have whitish deposits on them. What is this and what do I do to stop it?
- What kind of leather dressing should I use on my books?
- What is the difference between paper and vellum parchment documents and how do I tell them apart?
- Where do I find out more about the conservation of leather and parchment?
- I just discovered my documents are moldy. What should I do?
- How do I keep my documents from getting moldy?
- How do I keep my documents free from insects?
- I've found insects in my collections. What can I use to eliminate them that is safe for my documents and artifacts?
- My documents, books, and photographs have gotten wet. What do I do to salvage them?
- My documents were in a fire. What should I do to preserve them?
- What can I put in my time capsule that will survive?
- How do I get additional information that is not covered in these FAQs?
To learn more about the field of conservation, begin by contacting the following national and international professional institutions: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC); Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property/Association Canadien pour la conservation et la Restauration (CAC); International Institute for Conservation (IIC); International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM).
To obtain training as a conservator, the traditional method was to apprentice with an established conservator. Since the 1970s there has been the option of receiving training at the graduate school level. There are several full-time formal master's degree training programs. The programs in North America include New York University, Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario), The State University College at Buffalo (New York), and The University of Delaware at Winterthur. Visit the AIC's Become a Conservator for an updated list of additional training opportunities and institutional contact numbers.
Yes, the Harry Ransom Center Conservation Department staff does train volunteers in the areas of preservation housing, book, paper, and photograph conservation. See the information at the department website or call the department at 512-471-9117 for more information.
To find out how much your item is worth, contact an appraiser who will be able to provide you with the current market value. Listings for these professionals can be found in local phone books or by contacting the American Society of Appraisers or the International Society of Appraisers.
You can best preserve and prolong the life of your valuable documents, books, and photographs by establishing and maintaining a good storage environment. Other factors to consider are location, storage furniture, storage enclosures, housekeeping, and handling. These factors are discussed below.
Papers, books, and photographs survive well in the same environments that people find comfortable. Keep the environment constant at a cool temperature and moderate relative humidity: 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit with 50% relative humidity with no greater than a 5% drift over 24 hours is often recommended.
A centrally located interior room, closet, or vault is the best location for storing keepsakes. Attics are alternately too hot and cold; basements are too cold and damp. Spare rooms that are cut off from air circulation and heating and cooling can also get too cold or hot depending on the season. Look for areas that do not have water and sewage pipes, furnaces, stoves, fireplaces, and air conditioning/heating vents near them. Likewise, avoid areas directly across from windows, especially those that get full sunlight. Areas where food is stored or served are also unsuitable.
Store your materials in good quality paper board boxes (see question and answer regarding "archival" and "good quality" materials) and drawers to keep out dust, dirt, and light. Anodized aluminum and powder coated or baked enamel over metal shelving are best. Papers and photographs should be placed in folders in boxes on shelves wide enough to accommodate them. Books should be shelved upright whenever possible. Books can also be individually boxed or fitted with clear sleeves of polyester terephthalate film (such as MYLAR Type D™, or Melinex 516™) around the dust jackets. Vellum parchment skins can be stored in the same way as paper, photographs and books. Skins, as well as many other organic materials, are very sensitive to moisture and heat, so make certain these elements are under control.
The oils and dirt from hands can be damaging to books, papers, and photographic materials. Wash hands before handling your collections. Wear clean cotton gloves when handling photographs and handle photographs by the edges. Keep food and drink away from the area when using collections.
Clean storage areas regularly to reduce dirt. Dirt and neglect attract insects and pests. Keep air circulating to retard mold growth, especially in warmer, wetter climates.
Look for papers and boards made of 100% rag (cotton, or linen) or alpha-cellulose. Papers with alkaline reserves (often 3.5% calcium or magnesium carbonate) are suitable for storing acidic collection materials such as newspapers and family letters and documents. Alkaline papers meeting ANSI/NISO standards IT 9.2 1998, Z39.48-1992, and ISO 11108:1996 are considered permanent and suitable for long term storage. In addition, there are new papers and boards on the market that contain synthetic zeolites (charcoal is a natural zeolite). Zeolites are believed to remove pollutants from the air and those off-gassing from documents, books, and photographs. Look for Conservation Resource's MicroChamber™ product line and Nielsen-Bainbridge's ArtCare™ matboard product line.
The only plastics that are considered suitable for use with papers, books, and photographs are uncoated and unplasticized polyester terephthalate (such as MYLAR Type D™, or Melinex 516™), polyethylene, and polypropylene. In addition, some manufacturers will indicate products that have passed the P.A.T (Photographic Activity Test, ANSI/NAPM Standard IT.9.16 1993) and are considered safe for storing photographs. Materials passing the P.A.T. will also be suitable for use with paper and book collections.
Most photographs can be safely stored in alkaline materials with the exception of cyanotypes (blueprints), color photographs, and diazo process. However, if you cannot determine or are uncertain of the type of photographic process used, opt for storage materials that have a neutral pH as well as passing the P.A.T. (Photographic Activity Test, ANSI/NAPM Standard IT.9.16 1993).
Framing and displaying original materials is not the best way to preserve them. If the information is of primary interest, a duplicate (color photocopy, photograph or digital print) can be displayed instead. However, if you wish to frame the original, use glazing (glass or Plexiglas™) with an ultraviolet inhibitor, a good quality (minimum 4-ply paper board) mat to separate the item from the glazing, and a rigid, good quality backing. The frame should be sealed on the back to keep out dust and pests. Sufficient hardware should be used to distribute the weight of the framed item. Stainless steel and anodized aluminum metal frames are preferred when framing photographs. The interior rabet of wood frames can be sealed with aluminum backed films (such as Marvel Seal™) to reduce, but not eliminate, acidic off-gassing.
The best place to hang a framed original is an interior wall that is not near food preparation, water sources (pipes and bathrooms), vents, windows, or in the path of sunlight. The environment you choose to hang your valued originals is important for their preservation. Interior walls are better than exterior walls that can have frequent temperature and humidity changes. Air vents, heat vents, and fireplaces can also have sudden, high temperature changes and can deposit soot and dirt. Bathroom and kitchen areas have periodic high moisture and dirty conditions. Avoiding excessive light from windows and picture-frame lights will help to reduce fading. Consult with a conservation specialist for advice on appropriate techniques for matting and framing [refer to How to Frame question and answer].
You can help keep your books, documents, and photographs from fading by keeping them in the dark. Fading is primarily caused by exposure to light, especially sunlight and direct lamp light. When using light, limit the exposure and intensity of the light source. Blocking out the ultraviolet component to the light will also help reduce, but will not eliminate fading.
Chemical methods to darken inks are ultimately damaging to documents and are currently not recommended. Conservation treatment can lighten some papers thereby increasing the contrast between ink and paper and improving the ability to read documents. However, this is not necessarily suitable or possible with all types of papers and inks. There are some non-destructive technical methods that can help fading ink appear darker. Ultraviolet light can cause the brightener to fluoresce in some papers making inks appear more visible. (A black-light is usually a long-wave ultraviolet light source.) Sometimes inks are made visible using an infrared viewer. However, viewers can be expensive and hard to find. Black and white photographic prints from infrared film can sometimes show increased contrast between ink and paper. Likewise, some types of faded ink will appear darker to the eye in a standard black and white photographic print. Also, sometimes a copier set on a darker setting will produce a copy that's easier to read than the original.
A common pre-twentieth century ink that often causes holes in paper is iron gall ink. It is acidic and corrosive to paper. To protect your documents and books with iron gall ink on them, keep the papers in a good quality alkaline paper enclosure and consult a paper or book conservator. Contact the American Institute for Conservation for a list of conservators. For those wishing more information regarding the effects of iron gall ink, consult the Iron Gall Ink Corrosion website.
My documents and book pages are torn. What archival and safe material can I use to repair the damage?
Conservators use cooked purified starch pastes and food-grade cellulose ethers applied to good quality, long-fiber, thin papers for repairing tears. These adhesives contain moisture that can expand papers or bleed inks so care must be taken not to damage the original while mending. Modern synthetic adhesives are sometimes used, chosen by project and adhesive characteristic. Single items can be stored in sleeves of polyester terephthalate without plasticizers and coatings (MYLAR Type D™, Melinex 516™) to keep torn materials together if mending is not possible.
Unfortunately, there are not any pressure-sensitive adhesive tapes on the market that are safe for use on papers, books, or photographs despite manufacturer's claims to the contrary. Books and portfolios with detached spines and boards can be temporarily held together by wrapping flat cotton string, ribbons, or twill fabric sewing tapes around the item. Single items can be stored in sleeves of polyester terephthalate without plasticizers and coatings (MYLAR Type D™, Melinex 516™) to keep torn materials together until a conservator can be consulted. Tapes with water and moisture activated adhesives (examples are gummed glassine and brown paper) are often less damaging than pressure-sensitive tapes, however, they are becoming difficult to find in stores.
Pressure-sensitive tapes are not recommended because of the extensive damage that they cause. Pressure-sensitive adhesives can chemically cross-link with the papers, photographs, and books to which they are adhered making removal difficult and time consuming if at all possible. In addition, pressure-sensitive adhesives can stain materials, bleed inks, and cold flow (adhesive oozes) adhering to other items. Some pressure-sensitive tapes shrink as they age causing distortion and tearing of papers.
While NOT recommended, if you feel that a pressure-sensitive tape MUST be used or the document will be permanently damaged or lost, use tape with an acrylic adhesive (example 3M #810™ clear tape) as sparingly as possible (short sectional bridges across the tear instead of along the entire length of the tear) and apply the tape on the back or in areas where there is no writing, printing, or photographic emulsion.
As leather deteriorates it often becomes powdery. This type of deterioration is often referred to as red rot. Once leather has deteriorated to this stage, there is little that can be done and the damage cannot be reversed. Polyester jackets and archival paperboard boxes can be used to isolate the red rot powder and protect adjacent items. In some cases a conservator can apply a consolidant but this treatment can make the leather rigid and cause color changes. Contact the AIC or the Guild of Bookworkers for a listing of book conservators in your area.
Leather book covers can sometimes develop whitish deposits. Sometimes the whitish deposits are mold. Another type of deposit is called spew or spue. The spew deposits can be fats or salts. Storing books in a lower temperature and humidity usually reduces the occurrence of this type of problem (68-70 degrees Fahrenheit with 50% relative humidity +/- 5% drift over 24 hours is often recommended). The whitish deposits can often be reduced or removed from leather book covers. Contact the AIC or the Guild of Bookworkers for a listing of book conservators in your area.
Leather dressings were once thought to prevent leather deterioration and improve flexibility. Recent research indicates this is not true and use of leather dressings are no longer recommended for routine care. There are several potential problems with the use of leather dressings such as determining the type and amount of dressing to use. Lack of freshness of the dressings, aging characteristics of the oils used to make the dressings, and chemical interactions between dressings and processed leathers are also potential problems.
Paper is made from plants whereas vellum and parchment are made from the skins of animals. During processing, the skins are stretched and dried. Paper has replaced skins for most uses, but skins are still used for some documents such as certificates and diplomas. "Parchment paper" is a type of paper and not a skin.
Upon close inspection of the surface of a skin, it is often possible to see veins and hair-follicle holes. The hair side of the skin is sometimes burnished smoother than the flesh side which can be napped and rough. On the smooth side, indentations and scrape marks from the processing knife can be seen at times. Skins are very reactive to moisture so it is important not to get water near them or store them in areas of high humidity. Skins that have been damaged by moisture or heat can be distorted, stiff and translucent. Skins also have a tendency to curl.
There are many different types of molds and some can be hazardous to your health. Take appropriate personal protection such as wearing mouth and nose filter masks when working with moldy materials. Use plastic or latex gloves when isolating the moldy materials in plastic bags. Consult a conservator as soon as possible. A listing of conservators in the USA is available by contacting the AIC or by phone at 202-452-9545.
You can help to prevent your documents, books, and photographs from getting moldy by keeping the storage environment at steady temperature and humidity levels (68-70 degrees Fahrenheit with 50% relative humidity +/- 5% drift over 24 hours is often recommended). Keep the air circulating in the storage area. In addition, filter your air using charcoal filters to remove pollution, dust and dirt, and desiccants to reduce humidity. Store your materials in good quality boxes and drawers to keep out dust, dirt, and mold spores. Perform routine housekeeping to reduce dust and dirt levels.
The best way to keep bugs out of your valuable documents is to maintain regular housekeeping practices such as dusting (without sprays), vacuuming, removing trash, screening drains and sinks, checking for leaks in pipes, keeping air circulating, etc. Keep the storage environment at lower temperature and humidity levels (68-70 degrees Fahrenheit with 50% relative humidity +/- 5% drift over 24 hours is often recommended). Examine newly acquired additions to your collection for the presence of insects and mold before putting them near your collection.
I have found insects in my collections. What can I use to eliminate them that is safe for my documents and artifacts?
The best thing to do when finding pests in your collections is to NOT spray pesticides! These are very damaging to your collection materials. "Sticky traps" can be used to capture insects and help identify them so the appropriate control method can be chosen. Consult with professional conservators and entomologists on the appropriate use of methods such as poison bait disks, boric acid, silica gel, and freezing or oxygen deprivation (anaerobic conditions). For more information, consult "Dealing with Insect Infestations in Paper Based Collections Materials" by Mary Baughman on the Harry Ransom Center Conservation website.
To salvage a small number of damp or slightly wet items, dry the material and the environment as soon as possible. If sewage is involved, wear personal protection equipment and rinse the material in clear water if possible before drying the material. Set up fans to circulate air and dehumidifiers to remove moisture from the air.
There are several methods for drying books. When air drying, stand books upright on a table and fan open the pages to expose them to circulating air. Drying the cover of books before standing them up can prevent some distortion and damage. Open book covers and lay the text block at the edge of a table with one cover hanging off the table. Hold the other cover away from the textblock. While the book is in either an upright or horizontal position, crumpled papers such as unprinted newsprint, blotters, and, in a pinch, paper towels can hold covers away from the text block and be placed in between groups of the wet pages. Click here for other diagrams on recovery methods for wet books and papers.
Photographs should be laid flat, emulsion side up, on screens or blotters to dry. Very wet paper documents should also be dried flat. Slightly damp documents can be dried flat or attached with clothes pins to or gently draped over a hanging line to air dry.
If a large number of papers and books are water damaged and there is not enough space or proper conditions to dry the materials, freeze them as soon as possible. Fast and cold freezing (blast freezing) reduces the size of ice crystals that are formed. Larger ice crystals can damage materials such as paint layers or photographic emulsions. Contact a freeze-drying company to dry out the material. It is helpful to investigate websites and local yellow pages for suitable companies (these will vary by area) in advance of potential need.
The following materials should not be frozen: computer media, sound and video recordings, photographic glass plates (including glass lantern slides or glass color transparencies), cased photographs (such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes), and dye transfer color photographs. For more information on recovery procedures by material type, access FEMA's "Emergency Response Action Steps" or the "Conservation OnLine Disaster Preparedness and Response". The Ransom Center Conservation Department Emergency and Disaster Response Information can be accessed by clicking here. Also, the Ransom Center Conservation Department maintains a Private Conservator Directory of conservation professionals living and working in Texas.
Preserve brittle fire damaged papers by placing them in rigid folders or polyester terephthalate sleeves (such as MYLAR Type D™ or Melinex 516™). Consult a conservator for treatment. Contact the AIC for a listing of conservators in your area, or call them at 202 452-9545. The Ransom Center Conservation Department maintains a Private Conservator Directory of conservation professionals living and working in Texas.
Papers, books, photographs, and coins in time capsules often survive if the capsule can be constructed to keep out moisture and retard heat and humidity. Burying time capsules in the ground in most areas is not effective for longevity (dry deserts are an exception). Time capsules incorporated in buildings often fare better if the capsules are located away from drains and creeping damp from the ground or in basements. When determining whether to insert technological formats, such as video tapes and compact discs, consider the future availability of playback machines. The Smithsonian Institution's Center for Materials Research and Education (SCMRE) has tips on how to put a time capsule together. The December 5, 1999 New York Times Magazine also had an article, "Built to Last" on the practical issues of building and filling a time capsule.
If this website has not answered your queries, call the Harry Ransom Center Conservation office at 512-471-9117 or try one of the following websites.
National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) lists numerous organizations and many have the answers to other types of conservation and preservation related questions on their websites. The website for this organization is currently down. You may contact them at NCPTT, 645 College Avenue, Natchitoches, Louisiana 71457. Tel: 318 356-7444.
Conservation Online (CoOL) offers conservation resources, literature, a discussion list, and links to many other conservation related organizations.
Thank you for visiting the University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center's Conservation Department Frequently Asked Questions page.
More information is available on the Conservation Department Conservation Links page.