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Leaving a Paper Trail

While paper fragments may be good for papier-mâché projects and confetti, its decomposition doesn’t bode well for libraries. And, unfortunately, glue is not the magic fix-it. Like all materials, paper ages. And, as documents break down, whatever valuable information they might contain has the potential to be lost. If libraries know why paper decomposes, ways may be found to slow or halt degradation.

Southland Paper mill, Kraft (chemical) pulp used in making newsprint, Lufkin, Texas. 1943 Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence. June–July 1776

From 1994 to 2000, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and its Institute for Standards Research (ISR) conducted a program designed to develop accelerated aging test methods that could be used to model natural aging, like light and ozone, of printing and writing paper. Lacking in the study, however, were comparisons to actual long-term natural aging.

Therefore, ASTM/ISR enlisted a group of 10 libraries/archives willing to store sets of custom-made papers for 100 years, and four research laboratories to conduct periodic testing of the papers. The role of the Library of Congress will be to remind participating libraries/archives when testing is to occur and to submit their data sheets, to conduct endurance tests of all samples sent and to store such samples.

"The Long-Term Natural Aging of Printing and Writing Papers" project began in 2000 and runs until 2098. More background on the project can be found at the Library’s Preservation Directorate.

The Preservation Directorate fosters research leading to the care of collections. This research takes many forms, ranging from scientific and forensic characterization studies to treatment developments. Many of these projects are listed on the site and include project descriptions and background information.

Many of the Library’s very own treasured documents are tested and preserved in order to maintain their longevity. After being on display since last April, Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence, with edits by his fellow Founding Fathers John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, was taken off display in the “Creating the United States” exhibition in October 2008.

"Even with our full array of conservation techniques – protective glass, carefully controlled light, humidity, temperature – treasures as fragile as Thomas Jefferson’s draft Declaration of Independence can only be displayed for a brief period of time," said Kimberli Curry of the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office. "Such precautions ensure that we will be able to share these important items with generations to come."

A. Southland Paper mill, Kraft (chemical) pulp used in making newsprint, Lufkin, Texas. 1943. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Nos.: LC-DIG-fsac-1a35430 (digital file from original transparency), LC-USW361-836 (color film copy slide); Call No.: LC-USW36-836 <P&P>[P&P]

B. Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence. June–July 1776. Manuscript Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.