Document preservation


Any document that you have in your collection has two components – the paper and the printed information. 


A lot of the paper produced in Australia now is of quite good quality with a better life expectancy. The printing on the page will usually be in either an ink or toner.

Documents produced on a modern photocopier, on modern photocopy paper should last hundreds of years if stored correctly. One type of document that is not at all stable is the thermal fax. The images on these papers do not last more than a few years even in good storage conditions. The image will start to change from black to brown and will eventually fade to the point where it will be unreadable. Any document on thermal fax paper should be photocopied immediately, before the image fades out.


Inks come in a huge variety from very stable oil-based printing inks, to very unstable, water-based felt-tip inks.

A very common ink found on documents from the 19th and early 20th centuries is iron gall ink. This ink is a dark brown/black colour and although very easy to write with, was so acidic that over time, it burns the paper fibres. In extreme cases, the paper can crumble away where the writing is, leaving a network of holes in a now very fragile document. Inks made from carbon black (from charcoal or soot) are the most stable.

They do not fade or change colour, nor rub off or damage the paper. These inks are still available in jars to use with a fountain pen, but you can also buy them in a ready made pen. The least stable inks are cheap dye based inks which fade and/or change colour in light, bleed through the paper and run badly when accidentally exposed to liquids. Some fibre tipped pens and stamp pads use inks like these. Black photocopy toner is generally quite stable.


Fragile papers need very careful handling. If handled incorrectly creases can turn to tears, tears can be extended, dog-eared corners can become separated and vital information can be lost in the process. The basic rules for handling fragile material are:

  • No food or drink near your records
  • Have clean, dry hands with no lotions or creams on them
  • Wear cotton or surgical gloves if you like, but it is often difficult to pick up torn, fragile items with gloved fingers
  • Use a soft pencil (2B), not pen, to make notes or annotate records
  • Photocopy documents that are going to get a lot of use, and use this reference copy instead of the original
  • Put fragile material into plastic sleeves (see below) to provide support while still being able to view the item. A sheet of acid free photocopy paper can be inserted in the sleeve to provide extra support
  • Avoid using metal fasteners like staples and paper clips – in time these will rust and stain the paper. Plastic paper clips are available, or you can put multiple page items in a single plastic sleeve to keep them together. If you only have metal paperclips, you can put a slip of paper between the clip and your documents to protect them from potential rust stains
  • Oversize, fragile material (like maps or charts) should be carried on a piece of board slightly larger than the item to avoid weak areas moving around while the item is used
  • Avoid exposing your objects to strong light for extended periods of time.

Keep in mind that your records may well be irreplaceable and as such deserve as much care as you can give them. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather your collection and keeping them in good condition will save you, or future generations, the trouble of gathering them all over again.


Last reviewed: 13 Mar 2015