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IMLS-Funded Research Yields New Information on Paper Stability

January 26, 2012

By Tim Barrett
Director, University of Iowa Center for the Book Paper Facilities
, 319-621-2493

Research on paper permanence may seem a bit odd in the age of digital scanning and the internet, but there are a number of reasons why paper remains very important to future generations.

Paper originals that can be accessed without electronic hardware and software systems will continue to be essential backups to the digital record for a long time to come. Paper originals often contain information that is not available in even a high resolution digital scan. Close analysis of the papers themselves can often shed new light on a particular historical episode or figure. For example, when letters from a particular writer are found on especially poor-quality paper, given the writer’s time and place, it may indicate something significant about the writer’s financial situation. When a book was printed on very high-quality paper for its period and location, it might suggest something new about the publisher’s intended audience and marketing strategy. In both examples, digital scans are lacking. Finally, data from the analysis of historical papers that have proven exceptionally stable over centuries of natural aging can inform the work of paper conservators and those who make modern archival papers.

Variation in historical paper specimen condition typical of that seen in the 1,578 papers tested during the research.                Photo credit: Tim Barrett

Thanks to an IMLS Conservation Project Support grant awarded in 2007, our team was able to analyze 1,578 historical papers made between the 14th and the 19th centuries. We devised nondestructive methods to determine their chemical composition and this, in turn, allowed us to test rare early papers that are often found still light in color, supple, and strong today. The results of our three-year project show that this superior stability is due, in part, to high levels of gelatin and calcium.

In addition to IMLS, the University of Iowa and the Kress Foundation provided funding for the research. The University of Iowa Libraries is hosting a newly launched website  that details all the research goals, procedures, and results. The UI Center for the Book is a part of the UI Graduate College.