We are surrounded by so much paper and card that it is
easy to forget just how complex it is. There are many
varieties and grades of paper materials, and whilst it is fairly
easy to spot the varieties, it is far more difficult to spot the
It needs to be understood that most paper and card is
manufactured for a specific purpose, so that whilst the
corn-flake packet may look smart it is clearly not something
destined for the archives. It is made to look good, but only
needs a limited life span. It is also much cheaper to
manufacture than high grade card.
Paper can be made from an almost endless variety of
cellulose based material which will include many woods,
cottons and grasses or which papyrus is an example and
from where we get the word 'paper'. Many of these are very
specialized, but the preponderance of paper making has
been from soft wood and cotton or rags, with the bulk being
Paper from Wood.
In order to make wood into paper it needs to be broken
down into fine strands. Firstly by powerful machinery and
then boiled with strong alkalies such as caustic soda, until
a fine pulp of cellulose fibres is produced. It is from this pulp
that the final product is made, relying on the bonding
together of the cellulose into layers. That, in a very small
nutshell, is the essence of paper making from wood.
However, the reality is rather more complicated. In order to
give us our white paper and card the makers will add bleach
and other materials such as china clay and additional
An further problem with wood is that it contains a material
that is not cellulose. Something called Lignin. This is
essential for the tree since it holds the cellulose fibres
together, but if it is incorporated into the manufactured paper
it presents archivists with a problem. Lignin eventually
breaks down and releases acid products into the paper.
This will weaken the bond between the cellulose fibres and
the paper will become brittle and look rather brown and
careworn. We have all seen this in old newspapers and
cheap paperback books. It has been estimated that most
paper back books will have a life of not greater than fifty
years. Not what we need for our archives.
Since the lignin can be removed from the paper pulp during
manufacture the obvious question is 'why is it left in the
paper?' The answer lies in the fact that lignin makes up a
considerable part of the tree. By leaving the lignin in the pulp
a papermaker can increase his paper yield from a tree to
some 95%. Removing it means a yield of only 35%. It is
clearly uneconomic to remove the lignin for many paper and
It also means, of course, that lignin free paper is going to be
more expensive, but that is nevertheless what the archivist
must look for in his supplies. There is no point whatsoever
in carefully placing our valuable artifacts in paper or card
that is going to hasten their demise. Acid is particularly
harmful to photographic materials, causing them to fade
and is some cases simply vanish!
So, how do we tell a piece of suitable paper or card from
one that is unsuitable? You cannot do it by simply looking,
and rather disappointingly, you cannot always rely on the
label. 'Acid free' might be true inasmuch as a test on the
paper may indicate that it is a neutral material at this time.
But lignin can take years before it starts the inevitable
process of breaking down, and in the right conditions it will
speed up enormously.
Added to this, as I have indicated earlier, paper may also
contain other materials added during manufacture such as
bleach, china clay, chemical whiteners and size. This looks
like a bleak picture, and it would be but for the fact that there
are suppliers who will guarantee the material that they sell.
If you want to be absolutely sure that you are storing in, or
printing on, the correct material then this is probably the only
Incidentally, acids can migrate from material to material.
Lining old shoe boxes with good quality acid free paper will
do little to guard the contents. The acid will get there in the
Paper from Rag.
Paper is also commonly made from cotton and rag waste.
This has the advantage of being lignin free, but because
there is much less cotton and rag than trees, it also tends to
be much more expensive than wood pulp paper. You will
still need to purchase from a reliable source though, since
even rag paper and card can contain undesirable additives.
A reliable source for quality rag papers is a recognised art
stockist. Many water colour artists insist on using only fine
quality rag paper and board.
The main lesson to learn from this information is that you
cannot rely on purchasing archival materials from the high
street. The only safe solution is to purchase from specialist
suppliers. It may cost rather more, but in the end you will
know that your important and valuable data and images
have the best home possible.
Copyright ? Peter C. Amsden 2005
Peter C. Amsden (firstname.lastname@example.org) has many
years experience in photography, film and television. An
Associate of both The Royal Photographic Society and of the
British Institute of Professional Photographers. He had
made a special study of conserving and archiving imaging
media and is author of "Images for the Future". Runs
consultancy and web design business, for more info. see