Preserving archival volumes

In the field of archival records the term 'volume' describes an item in the form of a bound book. Volumes may be bound in a variety of styles and materials to protect the pages inside:

  • A case bindings is where the cover is made separately and wrapped around the text block like common paperbacks and hardbacks. They can include fine, decorative or limited edition volumes where the binding is also considered to be significant. Large leather or suede bound 19th century ledgers and registers are other common examples found in archives.
  • Logbooks and diaries, usually with simple binding structures, often hand-written manuscripts. They vary in size and quality.
  • Simple do-it-yourself bindings such as comb or spiral bindings used for business and government reports, diaries and one-off documents
  • Loose-leaf binders and folders that allow individual leaves to be easily added or exchanged
  • Post bindings use a number of metal posts or screws to hold the binding and the text block together. The post may or may not be designed to unscrew to to add pages. Photograph albums often use this structure.

All the materials listed above are prone to deterioration over time:

  • Some papers become brittle.
  • Parchment, used for historic documents and occasionally for binding is un-tanned leather that is very moisture sensitive – cockling and growing mould when damp, cracking when dry.
  • Leather is susceptible to becoming powdery and develping 'red rot'.
  • Paper, textiles and leather are susceptible to mould growth in humid conditions.
  • Metals corrode
  • Adhesives age and become brittle, losing their tack and can discolour.

Damage will commonly be caused to volumes by misuse or careless handling:

  • Spines can be broken by opening the volume too far.
  • If the stitching and materials holding the volume together are split, broken or torn. The bindings can break down and pages and covers become detached.

Preservation and storage

Protective packaging and labelling, appropriate storage environment, pest control and copying are practical measures that will minimise this deterioration.

When handling volumes the following steps should be taken:

  • Remove the volume from the shelf by holding the centre of the spine.
  • If necessary, gently push the items either side into the shelf so that the required volume protrudes.
  • Do not by place a finger at the top of the spine and pull the volume from the shelf – this will lead to the spine being torn from the book.
  • Carefully carry single volumes. However, when moving heavy volumes or more than one volume, use a trolley.
  • When opening a volume, lay it on a clean flat surface. Open the volume gently, without forcing the spine down flat and support it with a cushion.
  • Take care not to drag the volume across surfaces as this will scratch the cover.
  • Fragile volumes should be supported when open. Raised boards under each cover in a 'V' shape reduce the stress put on the binding.
  • Don't repair pages or spines with adhesive tape. If the covers are loose or detached tie the volume – like a present – with cotton tape. Seek professional advice for a more permanent repair.
  • Only clean volumes with a very soft, wide brush (such as hake brushes available at art supply shops).
  • Some old ledger covers are prone to deterioration of the leather binding, known as 'red rot'. This is believed to result from the combined action of air pollution and poor leather manufacturing processes. The telltale sign is red dust on fingers when the volumes are handled. An effective temporary measure is to place the volume in a plastic bag to contain the leather dust.

The size, weight and volumes binding structure can make photocopying difficult and damaging. If copying cannot be avoided, consider the following points:

  • Take time to carefully place the volume on the platen and don’t force the spine down flat.
  • Don’t force the copier lid down to flatten the volume. Cover it with a piece of card while on the copier.
  • Carefully lift and close the volume when the copying is completed.

It may be more satisfactory to capture the volume pages with a purpose designed book copier or a digital camera on a copy stand. Specialist advice should be sought through the Agency Service Centre before copying old and fragile volumes.

Volumes are usually protected by their binding and can be placed on shelves without boxes. However, to protect the binding and make retrieval easier volumes can be housed in boxes. Some volumes have decorative bindings that must be protected from dust and dirt by being boxed or wrapped in archival paper.

Before placing a volume on a shelf or in protective packaging, it is important to ensure that it is free of dust and unaffected by mould, insects or active corrosion in metal fittings. Affected volumes should be isolated and advice on how to deal with them sought through the Agency Service Centre.

Clear labelling of volumes is a very important aspect of preserving them. If volumes are easy to find, it reduces handling and the chance of damage.

A label can be adhered to a binding that is not intrinsically important. However, the adhesive on the label is likely to stain the cover, eventually fail, and have to be replaced. A better solution is to have an inert plastic strip, or plastic cover, made to fit over the cover and have the label attached to that inert plastic strip or cover.

Storage furniture should be designed and set out to minimize damage to any items that are stored within it:

  • Shelves can be powder-coated steel or wooden, with an inert coating.
  • The lowest shelves should be 15 cm off the floor in case of minor flooding.
  • Records should not be stored on the top of shelving units. Files may be too close to ceiling lights and exposed to dust and in the event of fire, suffer water damage from fire sprinklers.
  • Large fragile volumes that won’t close properly – containing paper cuttings or photographs – should be stored flat on shelves.
  • Store smaller volumes upright on shelves and where possible provide support with shelf dividers at regular intervals. If volumes are allowed to lean then the binding will be stressed and damage is likely. This also applies to volumes in protective boxes.
  • Be aware that protective boxes may be required for some types of binding – such as post binding that may protrude and damage adjacent volumes.
  • Boxes and any other packaging materials should be made of archival materials.
  • Aisles between shelving should be wide enough to allow easy retrieval and transport of records.
  • Position suitably sized tables near storage cabinets to allow staff to safely check contents and retrieve items from boxes and drawers.

If specialised storage is available then temperatures between 18 to 20 °C at a relative humidity between 45 to 50 per cent are desirable. Office air-conditioning generally operates between 21 to 23 °C in temperate climates. If these conditions are stable then the natural deterioration of the objects can be moderated. Wide fluctuations in conditions can physically stress records and accelerate their deterioration. Note that air-conditioning systems often only operate during office hours, leading to a wider fluctuation of temperature and relative humidity at other times. At sustained relative humidities over about 65 per cent, mould growth can occur. It is recommended that you aim for a storage area with stable conditions, where the temperature is around 20 °C and the relative humidity remains below 60 per cent.

Materials degrade more quickly when exposed to light, especially ultraviolet (UV). Surprisingly, fluorescent tubes often emit a relatively high level of UV. Lighting should be turned on only when it is needed. Ideally, storage areas should have no windows. Where windows are present, they should be covered with opaque curtains or blinds.

The National Archives' publication Standard for the Physical Storage of Commonwealth Records provides further information on optimum environmental conditions for storage of all types of archival materials.

Pests such as insects and rodents can be attracted to record storage areas in search of food and shelter. For such organisms, volumes, with their leather covers, cellulose pages and starch or protein adhesives, are a very attractive food source. To reduce the possibility of pest damage:

  • Keep the area clean
  • Do not eat in storage areas as food scraps can attract pests.
  • Check storage areas regularly for outbreaks of insects or rodents – should an infestation occur, baiting or fumigation may be necessary.

For more information, see the advice on integrated pest management.

Further advice

Contact the Agency Service Centre.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014