Selecting Preservation Supplies: Some Basic Guidelines

There are a variety of high-quality preservation supplies on the market today that will help to ensure a longer life span for your collections of enduring value. Most preservation supplies are still only available through the mail from preservation suppliers. But some items, such as photograph and postcard sleeves, are increasingly available in photo supply and large discount stores (K-Mart, Walmart, etc.)

In selecting supplies, it is vitally important that you make yourself familiar with what constitutes true preservation-quality supplies. Never take the words "preservation-quality" and "archival-quality" at face value when used in the marketing of a product. Never assume that because a product is included in a preservation supply catalog that it is the best preservation choice. Ask why something is called "archival-quality;" and what makes it so? Below are some guidelines to help you in your selection of appropriate preservation and archival supplies.

Plastics
Plastics are petroleum products, and many common plastics "off-gas" harmful chemicals, which can damage the materials they are in contact with. This includes many plastics found in standard photograph albums, and plastic dry-cleaner bags used to store clothing in.

Plastics are commonly found in collections as page protectors in scrapbooks and photo albums, and storage enclosures for photographs, documents, postcards, maps, negatives, and slides

Use only preservationally-sound (chemically stable) plastics:

  • Polyester: most commonly called by brand name "Mylar"
  • Polypropylene
  • Polyethylene

Avoid:

  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • unidentified plastics (including grocery and dry cleaning bags)
Paper and Board
Many of the papers, folders and boxes found in collections are acidic because of their manufacturing processes. The acids and lignin found in much of the paper manufactured from the mid-19th century through today contribute to the deterioration of some paper-based materials over time, and the deterioration of items placed next to them. (Think about what a newspaper clipping looks like after several years, or its staining effect when left next to another sheet of paper.)

Paper and board are commonly found in collections as file folders and boxes, phase boxes and document/pamphlet binders, sleeves for photographs and negatives, scrapbooks, tissues and wrapping papers, and photocopy paper.

Preservationally-sound paper and board

  • are made from durable & chemically stable materials
  • are lignin-free
  • contain a buffer of calcium carbonate (not recommended for use with some photographic materials, and certain textiles)
  • alkaline papers ("acid-free"): pH = 7.5?8.5 range

Avoid

  • Papers, folders, boxes, etc. with high acid content (purchase a pH marking pen to easily check pH)
  • Glassine envelopes
  • Brown Kraft paper envelopes
  • Newsprint and other low-quality, wood pulp products

To lengthen the life of your collections, it's important to identify those deteriorating or damaging plastic- and paper-based materials and replace them with appropriate storage enclosures.

Avoid These Short-Cut Remedies & Office Supplies Which Can Permanently Damage Materials:

  • Pressure-sensitive tape (like Scotch brand): Over time, the poor-quality plastics base of the tape will become yellow, obscuring text underneath, and brittle, easily flaking off. In addition, the poor-quality adhesive used in these tapes will begin to ooze out from underneath the plastic tape, causing damage, attracting dirt, and becoming difficult to remove.
  • Rubberbands: Over time rubberbands will soften, sticking to any surface they tough, often staining them from the sulfur used in manufacture. Rubberbands eventually dry out, breaking into pieces that remain stuck on the material and are difficult to remove without damage to the material.
  • Glue & glue-sticks (use PVA for repairs instead): Recently "acid-free" glue-sticks have appeared on the market and are a tempting alternative to PVA for attachments. Although their adhesive may be "acid-free," these should be avoided because the adhesive will dry out over time, losing the strength and flexibility PVA guarantees.