Preserving paper files

This advice discusses the particular problems associated with the protection and handling of files.

A file is a collection of documents on a similar subject or transactions held together in a folder. The documents within the file are often fastened together in smaller numbers using staples, paperclips or pins.

The types of documents on a file can include:

Deterioration of paper

It is important to understand how paper deteriorates because all the materials on a file are usually paper-based.

Paper is mostly made up of cellulose fibres derived from plants. In the past hundred years a lot of the paper has been either acidic or contained impurities that produced acids. Over time, this caused the paper to discolour and embrittle. Newspaper and paperback books often show this deterioration. More recently, standard paper grades are being manufactured using an alkaline process that produces a paper with a much better life expectancy.

Production method alone does not produce a high quality paper. Other factors including the quality and type of fibre stock, the additives and impurities incorporated influence the quality of paper produced. Archival papers suitable for a range of purposes are readily available. 

Further information:

Recycled paper is not considered archival and should not be used for records that are to be permanently retained. Recycled paper may contain impurities such as printing inks and plastics from toners used in copiers and the processing also shortens cellulose fibres, reducing paper strength and durability.

Thermal paper has been used for older fax machines, electronic whiteboards and payment dockets. The paper has a heat-sensitive chemical coating that holds the printed image. Unfortunately, the image can quickly be affected by friction, heat or light. Contact with certain materials such as highlighter pens can dissolve the image. To preserve the information on thermal paper it should be photocopied. For more information on thermal papers and their deterioration, please see the advice on thermal papers.

Carbonless copy paper as the name suggests, is a copy produced without the aid of a separate carbon paper. Typically, carbonless copy papers are used for such things as freight dockets and stationery requests. The printed images on these papers are highly unstable and can fade quite rapidly. Carbonless copy paper should be photocopied onto plain paper for long-term information retention.

Preservation and storage

Careful handling is the essential basic strategy for the long-term preservation of paper files:

  • Ensure your hands are scrupulously clean and free from food, grease and hand creams.
  • Take care when using pens near archival records, because they can leave indelible marks on pages.
  • Turn pages carefully, with two hands if necessary, to avoid tearing pages off the file pin.
  • Do not use a wet finger to turn pages.
  • If you need to bookmark a page in a file use a piece of clean white paper – avoid using 'post-it' notes and remove the 'bookmark' when finished.
  • Do not use adhesive tape to repair tears. It will discolour, damage the paper and eventually fall off.
  • Polyester, polyethylene or polypropylene plastic sleeves are very useful for placing torn or detached folios back on files and isolating photographs and other materials from adjoining file pages.
  • File pins and other metal pins will eventually rust. Use stainless steel pins and clips or plastic clips to fasten files. Placing a piece of archival quality paper between the clip and the document will prevent damage to the paper.

If folios are protruding from files then the papers should be carefully re-aligned. Before placing files in protective packaging it is important to ensure that they are free of dust and unaffected by mould, insects, or active deterioration. Affected items should be isolated and advice on how to deal with them sought through the Agency Service Centre.

  • Every item, or group of items, should have a file cover or protective material enclosing it.
  • Cotton tape can be used to bundle loose papers.
  • Do not fold Items to fit them into the file cover. Provide a covering that suits the size of the item and place it in a suitably sized box.
  • All packaging materials should be made of archival materials. You can slow the deterioration of acidic paper by storing it in alkaline packaging.

The way in which files and general papers are arranged in boxes is very important:

  • Files should be stored on their spine with the file pin at the bottom of the box.
  • Where a file only consists of individual documents or items and they can be stored flat on the bottom of a box – take care not to stack too many items on top of one another or retrieval may be difficult and damage items at the bottom.
  • Thin items stored on their edge must be supported to avoid the paper curling and sagging.
  • Cards are usually stored upright in lidded boxes. They should be packed densely – but with enough space to allow a search for individual items. Use cotton tape rather than rubber bands to hold cards together.
  • Make sure the box is the correct size for the records to allow for easy retrieval and reduce the likelihood of handling damage.
  • It is preferable not to stack boxes. However, if necessary they should be stacked in a staggered formation not more than four high, with the boxes at the bottom filled to avoid collapse.

Storage shelves and cupboards should be designed and set out to minimize damage to any stored items:

  • Shelves should be powder-coated metal or wood with an inert coating to prevent the release of harmful organic vapours.
  • The lowest shelves should be 15cm off the floor in case of minor flooding.
  • Paper 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, water damage from fire sprinklers.
  • Aisles between shelving should allow easy access to, and transport of records.
  • Suitably sized tables should be located near storage cabinets, so that staff can safely check the contents and retrieve items from boxes and drawers.

Storage drawers should be clearly labelled with their contents so that items may be retrieved with a minimum of handling.

To prevent damage to the items, ensure that the drawers:

  • operate smoothly when opened and closed
  • have stops to prevent them being pulled completely out when they are opened
  • have a lip at the front to prevent items from falling onto the floor and one at the back to prevent them from falling behind the drawers
  • are never overfilled.

Paper documents should be stored in the same environment recommended for paper records and artworks. 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. They may take to eating paper-based material such as files.

To reduce the possibility of pest damage:

  • Keep the area clean – dust can be a breeding ground for insects and mould.
  • Do not eat or drink in storage areas, as food scraps attract pests.
  • Check storage areas regularly for insect or rodent outbreaks. Baiting or fumigation may be necessary if there is an infestation.

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

Files are usually identified by writing on the file cover. Documents may be folioed in pencil, placed in a labelled box. Clear labelling, will reduce the amount of handling an item receives.

Copying

Photocopying is often used as a generic term for electrostatic printing. Strictly speaking, the term photocopy refers to photographic copy processes used until the 1960s. However, for consistency the term photocopy will be used in these preservation advices in place of the more correct technical terms – electrostatic or laser printing. The most common office copying process is photocopying with an electrostatic or laser printer where paper reference copies are required. These prints are generally low resolution reference copies.

Digital file scanning can be used to produce high resolution digital files that are required for preservation and access.

Document copying may occur for several reasons:

  • to preserve a copy of the information on a fragile or deteriorating record
  • as an access copy to preserve a heavily used original record
  • to exhibit a copy and preserve the original record in storage.

When copying archival records, the following points should be considered to ensure that the record is not damaged:

  • Ensure that the copier platen is clean, and dry the platen if cleaning is required.
  • Don't use document feeders for archival documents.
  • Refer a record to a conservator before copying if it is in poor condition.
  • Consider using a scanner when copying an original photograph since it is safer and can provide a much better image quality. Do not apply pressure to the back of a mounted photograph, since this could crack or break the mount and photograph. If possible, copy a reference print.
  • Before copying an archival file, it should be disassembled and all metal clips, staples and pins carefully removed. The file should be reassembled in the same order afterwards.
  • Documents that are slightly creased and/or folded may be smoothed out by carefully pulling the wrinkles flat – severely creased, folded or torn items should be treated by a conservator before copying.
  • Digital scanning should be used where high image quality and multiple digital or hard copies are required.

Further advice

Contact the Agency Service Centre.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014