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Paper research

Learn about the story of commercial paper in Australia through the collection of the National Archives – includes a history of papermaking, research on paper quality through time and a database of watermarks with fascinating images.

Preserving paper-based records

More than 90 per cent of the Archives' records are paper based. They include office and military personnel files, maps and plans, bound volumes, registers, sketchbooks, ephemera (for example, event tickets, posters, newspapers) and artworks.

Paper is made from plant fibres, and its quality and longevity vary according to its composition. For example, artists' papers are normally made from high-quality cellulosic fibres such as cotton that may last for hundreds of years. Whereas newsprint paper made from poor-quality wood pulp can deteriorate quickly. Papers in our care are of different ages and compositions, and many different media have been used to record information on them. Media used include ink, pencil, paint, charcoal and pastel. Our preservation approach to records depends on the paper quality and condition, and the type of media used.

Preservation activities

Preservation action

We undertake basic paper preservation treatments on records to stabilise them. These include flattening creases, repairing tears, dry cleaning, repackaging and routine matting.

Complex treatments are labour intensive and usually restricted to records of special importance or with significant preservation problems. These include backing removals, linings, humidification and flattening, removing adhesive tapes, reducing stains and specialised matting or display techniques.

Copying and digitising

We digitise large-format drawings and photocopy thermal papers and other records on obsolete or unstable media. To prevent damage to originals, we also copy highly significant and fragile records and make the copies available.

Repackaging records

We use archival-quality packaging materials to minimise deterioration of records in storage and the risk of damage when they are transported.


We keep records in controlled environments on shelving appropriate for their size and format.

Example of an intensive repair

We selected this drawing of the New Victoria Bridge over the Brisbane River (1893) for intensive treatment and digital copying for access because of its historical significance and substantial deterioration.

About the record

The record is a reproduction of a drawing of the 'new' Victoria Bridge built in Brisbane to replace a bridge that was destroyed by flood in 1893. The bridge was opened in 1897 and demolished in 1969 when it in turn, was replaced. It was probably used as a working or presentation drawing.

The record dimensions are 1 metre x 2.4 metres. It consists of two pieces of paper stuck together end to end. It was made using the ferrogallic print process. The acids left in the paper after processing cause these prints to embrittle and discolour. Additionally, there are red ink lines at the bottom left and graphite (pencil) inscriptions on both sides.

The existing damage

The paper was a brown colour and very brittle and fragile with many tears and losses. Some detached pieces had been kept. There had been crude repairs using heavy brown paper and paper tape on the back of the drawing before its arrival at the Archives. The repairs were misaligned, causing further tears and staining as they aged. The drawing was also water damaged.

What we did

We cleaned off the surface grime with a smoke sponge. Then original brown paper tape repairs and the glue were removed using a methylcellulose gel poultice. Tears and detached pieces were repaired using Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. The missing areas were replaced with archival paper that was a similar colour. Watercolours were used to tone the patches to the correct colour. The drawing was then lined with Japanese tissue paper. We then created a digital copy for use by researchers.

Before treatment

Brisbane's new Victoria bridge before treatment.

Brisbane's new Victoria Bridge (1893) before treatment. (NAA: J3088, QPT501)

After treatment

New Victoria Bridge after treatment

Brisbane's new Victoria Bridge (1893) after treatment.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019