Preservation of Paper Records
Notaries, families, businesses, organizations, museums, libraries and government agencies keep paper records. For long-term or archival storage, knowing best practices for preservation of paper records is important.
Several organizations, including records management and conservation associations, archivists and museums, publish information on best practices for paper records preservation. Below is a summary of important paper records preservation tips.
Light, Heat, Moisture
The primary enemies of paper preservation are light, heat and moisture. Ultraviolet (UV) light from sunlight should be blocked to prevent reaction with acids in papers. Maximum lighting of 50 lux is recommended, which is the typical amount of light in a family living room. Turn off lights. Avoid bright lights and fluorescent lighting. The effects of light damage are cumulative.
Temperature should be stable, in a range of 55 F to 70 F, with lower temperatures preferred. Lower temperatures slow the rate of chemical decay and reduce insect activity. Keep documents away from heat sources, such as direct sunlight, furnaces, heaters, stoves, fireplaces, radiators and heating vents.
Ideal humidity is stable relative humidity between 30% and 50%. Lower humidity prevents mold growth and reduces insect activity. Avoid very low relative humidity below 15%, which can cause paper dryness and brittleness. Keep away from moisture and water sources such as windows, kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, plumbing, aquariums, waterbeds, washing machines, sprinklers, humidifiers and roof leaks.
Avoid storage in a garage, vehicle, shed, basement or attic. Store above the floor, in a controlled environment with adequate air circulation. A closet shelf may be used, or a metal bookcase or filing cabinet. Metal shelves are preferred over wood shelves because wood resin, acids, and gasses can leach out. Use sealed wood shelving.
Keep away from food storage, pet food, dust, dirt, chemicals, cleaners, paint and acids. Keep away from pets and children. Watch for signs of water, insects or rodents.
If electronic storage media is also stored in the archive, it should be kept away from motors, electric and magnetic fields.
For security, the location should be locked to prevent document theft, viewing, copying or tampering.
Clean hands before working with documents. Remove any food, dirt, grease, oil or lotions from hands. Keep food, snacks and drinks on another surface, away from documents, to avoid spills and stains in the work area. The air should be clean and free from smoke, pollution, fumes, fragrances and odors.
Keep documents flat. Do not bend or fold. Avoid using, or carefully remove, fasteners such as paper clips, staples, tape, glue, rubber bands, ribbons and rivets.
Remove any inserts such as paper notes, sticky notes, index cards, business cards, bookmarks, photographs, pressed leaves or flowers.
Use a #2 pencil to add titles and categories to folders. Adhesive labels may dry out and fall off over time or leave a sticky residue. Ink from pens and markers may contain acid. If you make a note on the document, enclose it in [square brackets] to indicate it was added by the archivist and is not a part of the original document.
For important documents and records, requiring a long storage life, including a diploma, license, certificate, last will, trust, power of attorney, real estate deed, contract, lease, signed documents, legal documents, family records, business records, school records, medical records or financial records, use acid-free paper. Many books printed on acid-free paper display the infinity logo for permanent paper.
Conservation grade is acid-free buffered paper made from wood-based pulp. Archival grade (museum grade) is cotton rag paper made from cotton pulp. (Southworth is a popular brand of premium 25% and 100% cotton business paper, including a watermark and date code for security and fraud prevention.) Standards are ANSI Z39.48-1992 and ISO 9706 for permanent paper and ISO 11108 for archival paper.
Paper made from long fibers is stronger than paper made from short fibers. Recycled paper typically has shorter fibers. Linen paper, made from flax, is very strong, but expensive. Many countries make paper currency from a blend of 25% linen and 75% cotton.
Do not laminate documents. Acid-free sheet protector sleeves may be used. Small items may be stored in acid-free envelopes.
Store individual documents in acid-free file folders, with a pH of 7.5 to 10, making them alkaline. Higher pH serves as more of a buffer to slow down deterioration caused by acid in the paper document. Permanent papers made from 100% chemically purified wood with a high pH are expected to last at least 300 years under normal storage conditions.
Do not overfill file folders or storage boxes so they are bulging. Limit filled storage box weight to 40 pounds. Use the score lines at the base of a file folder to adjust to the volume of records inside. To prevent records from sagging, use spacerboards (box board inserts to take up unused space) as needed.
File folders may be stored upright in bankers boxes, classified as acid-neutral with a pH level above 7.1. Acid-free, lignin-free, buffered material is also available for archival bankers boxes. A pH testing pen may be used to mark and indicate if an item is alkaline or acidic.
Plastics used for storage must be inert or chemically stable. The most common plastic used to store permanent records is polyester film. Avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, capable of damaging paper and inks.
Large documents, such as maps, blueprints or drawings, should be rolled on an acid-free tube, to prevent crushing, with a diameter of 3″ to 6″. Store up to five documents on one tube. Avoid rolling documents tightly with a small diameter. Wrap the rolled originals with acid-free bond paper for protection. Cotton twill tape may be used to tie the document to the tube. The rolled document should be stored on a shelf in the horizontal position, not vertically on end.
Document Retrieval and Inspection
A document inventory may be created using a spreadsheet or database to aid retrieval, listing the document title, category, creation date, destruction date, file folder name, and storage box or shelf name or number. Inspect documents periodically and during document retrieval for any signs of contamination, water, insects, mold or damages. Storage boxes and file folders may need to be replaced after 5 years.
Notary Journal and Records
Notaries have a common law duty to use reasonable care to prevent loss or harm to others. This includes proper care and storage of notary journals and certified copies. The notary is the record keeper. The records belong to the state records and must be turned in when the notary resigns, retires, dies or moves to another state. A notary may receive a request to make a copy of a specific record or notary journal entry. The records should be organized, retrievable, undamaged and legible.
Choose a journal with acid-free paper. Use an archival pen with acid-free ink. When a notary journal is full, store it in the notary archive. Place a sheet of acid-free bond paper between notary journals to prevent covers from sticking together. When your notary career is over, turn in your notary records according to your state notary laws.
It is valuable to scan the pages of a notary journal to keep an electronic copy as a backup, in case of disaster or damage to paper records. The individual scanned pages may be compiled into a PDF volume, using AES 128 or 256 bit encryption, protected by a strong password.
Colorado Law, Title 24, Article 80, State History, Archives, and Emblems
CRS 24-80-106. Protection of records
The department of personnel and every other custodian of public records shall carefully protect and preserve them from deterioration, mutilation, loss, or destruction and, whenever advisable, shall cause them to be properly repaired and renovated. All paper, ink, and other materials used in public offices for the purpose of permanent records shall be of durable quality.
For electronic storage media, the type of media used changes with advances in technology. Use mainstream, readily available storage media.
Floppy disks and cassette tapes are outdated, hard disks are being replaced by removable flash drives and solid state drives (SSD), photographic film cameras have been replaced by digital cameras using micro SD memory cards, CDs and DVDs are less common, online encrypted cloud storage is more common.
Electronic documents will need to be copied or transferred and verified to migrate to new storage media types periodically. Multiple copies should be kept, in separate locations, for disaster protection.
Long-life Paper Records
With proper care, paper records can last hundreds of years. Follow best practices to be a responsible document conservator and archivist in the preservation of paper records. The Aspinwall notary records from Boston in 1644 have been preserved and contain a wealth of valuable historical information from that era after the Pilgrims landed in 1620.
- U.S. National Archives, Storing Family Papers and Photographs
- U.S. Library of Congress, Proper Care, Storage and Handling of Works on Paper
- State archives, document storage guidelines
Preservation of Paper Records
Paper Records Archive Education