State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 45 Autumn 1990


Dealing With Documents

WHAT IS A DOCUMENT? This is one of the most challenging questions in the world of library conservation. The Pocket Oxford Dictionary definition begins:
1. n[oun] Something that furnishes evidence esp. a legal deed or other piece of writing …
Batman's Deed of Melbourne is regarded as one of the treasures of the State Library of Victoria, though not for any legally binding authority it may have. It is interesting from a conservation viewpoint to consider its physical characteristics in their historic and social contexts. When it was required to form part of Images of Melbourne, an exhibition of over 800 items from private and public archives in the Myer Mural Hall and Gallery, Melbourne, 18–30 May, 1981, it became necessary to flatten it. Being the first genuine parchment that I had dealt with, it was a memorable experience, especially in light of later knowledge.
The overall dimensions of this single membrane are 35cm by 67cm but it had been tightly folded into a parcel measuring 12cm by 23cm. At some time during storage it had been water damaged, distorting it further at the folds. The procedure adopted to overcome these problems is fairly standard and draws on knowledge of the manufacture of parchment or vellum — that is, untanned skin treated with lime and then stretched on a frame and scraped to remove hair, flesh etc. Conservation treatment of parchment begins with testing solubility of inks, surface cleaning and close observation of wax seals. The membrane may then be humidified, relaxed and gently drawn out under tension using padded bulldog clips or similar attached by elastic bands to pegs around the perimeter. Acidity is not a problem due to the lime used in the preparation of the skin.
During three weeks placement at British Library Western Manuscripts Conservation Workshop as part of my studies at Camberwell School of Art and Crafts, I gained fairly intensive experience of this material and learned that most skins can be treated rather routinely. They were carefully relaxed with a damp sponge and lightly pressed between blotters. This sounds a little easier than in practice. The things to be wary of are excess moisture and pressure which can turn the parchment, or parts thereof, translucent.
Wet parchment will distort considerably if not controlled. Under no circumstances should the skin be ironed, as this will cause the affected part to skrink and surrounding areas to pucker.
Fortunately my initial experience with parchment was a success and instead of being confined to a 13cm by 24cm bookcloth wallet, Batman's Melbourne Deed is now stored flat in a plan chest within a melinex sleeve and portfolio. The Australian Manuscripts Collection, holds one of three original sets of the Melbourne and Geelong deeds and further details are to be found in Victoria's Treasures from the La Trobe Collection, State Library by Anne Glover.1
Over the years the State Library of Victoria has produced a number of reproductions of the Melbourne and Geelong Deeds. In 1989 an enquiry about the authenticity of what the owner hoped was an important document resulted in a sobering lesson for him. He had purchased in good faith, from an erstwhile friend and dealer, a framed black and white reproduction of the deed, with mottled staining and discolouration. Even cursory examination revealed it to be a photocopy (not even a printed reproduction). Out of the frame it was obvious that a felt-tip pen had been used over the seals. A crude attempt at deception.
Photocopies do have their place however, and a document likely to be frequently referred to will be spared much wear and tear if the original is carefully copied then put away.
Reflecting on a direction for this article a number of points emerged that now bring in the active part of the Pocket Oxford definition:
2. v[erb] t[ransitive] Furnish (contention, description, agent, ship, &c) with proofs, illustrations, certificates, or other dd.
Documentation for the conservator implies keeping good records of treatments. Any chemicals, pigments, adhesives or consolidants used or materials added should be noted. An identifying symbol or number pencilled on the object that refers to conservation records will assist in later assessment of treatments. Documentation may include other information. As has been observed — “… the conservator is in an unusually advantageous position to compile scholarly data which might otherwise not be forthcoming.”2 Suspicions that may be raised-regarding the attribution of certain works to a particular artist, or words to a particular author, may be investigated through scientific means such as analyses of paper furnish (the ingredients in the beater which, when added together, give a specific
type of paper), watermarks, inks, presence of chemicals or dyes etc. Sometimes it is more important to do minimal treatment that will not affect results of analytical tests. Details that may be disregarded, such as the method of construction of a diary kept by a tradesman in Ballarat during the Eureka uprising, may have been lost if the conservator was not aware that the diarist had been a paper ruler and sometime bookbinder. Had the volume been rebound in a more conventional or ‘sound’ style, some of the personality and uniqueness of the item would now be lost. (Several leaves are watermarked EVANS BROS BALLARAT).3
Archival documents are preserved for the historical information and evidence they provide rather than appearance which may be regarded as of secondary importance. “The restorer of a work of art, such as a picture or illuminated manuscript, will have primary regard for its appearance; he will make his repair work as little visible as possible…”4 The owner or curator of an historic document has a greater sense of loyalty to the integrity of the object and care during handling and treatment should overule aesthetics.
Repairs should be neat and inconspicuous but not disguise the fact that some alteration has been made to the original. In some instances an inclination to do too much should be resisted. The fragments and scraps of paper on which Burke and Wills recorded their last notes of the fatal journey to the interior of Australia would be less authentic and have less pathos if ragged edges were to be filled out and made to look more ‘presentable'. Such examples can lead to the retention of ‘historic dirt’ as an integral part of an object.
Staples, pins and paper clips may rust or cause damage. Plastic clips are often a suitable substitute. Dirt and other surface deposits can usually be removed or reduced from paper or parchment with brushes or erasers. With care this is not damaging to the document though it may be argued that it is non-reversible intervention. This treatment is known as mechanical cleaning by many conservators to differentiate it from the superceded term dry cleaning which may be confused with the commercial cleaning of clothing and the use of non-wetting liquids. Washing in aqueous solutions or organic solvents will usually lift soluble dirt, acids and other degraded products.
Paper with low pH may be brought up to neutral or even buffered with alkaline properties as some protection from future acidity by various methods. Most small to medium scale treatments will involve total immersion of the object in several changes of water. Such treatments are generally beneficial, however they may alter the dimension, surface characteristics and other historic information. If washing is carried out, sizing material may be removed which will reduce the strength of the document. This can be replaced with gelatine or other suitable solutions as part of the washing and deacidification process, by brush or spray.
Damaged or weakened documents may need repair or strengthening. Traditional methods use similar materials: parchment with parchment, or paper with paper, with starch paste as the adhesive. Full backing with Japanese paper or tissue may be necessary for fragmented or weakened paper. It is often quicker to do this than laboriously repair individual tears or losses. Maps are often subject to heavy use and a paper backing may be precautionary. In the past large maps were frequently backed with linen and rolled, but it is usually preferable for them to be sectioned and backed to be folded along cloth joints.
Lamination is a term that has sometimes been applied to paper or textile reinforcement of one or both sides of a document, though it now more commonly seems to refer to an irreversible process of embedding the document in plastic. This may be satisfactory for mass produced posters and the like but should be avoided for unique items, indeed anything considered a permanent part of the collection.
“The so-called Scotch tape, so convenient in commerce for quick parcelling, is a common source of trouble in causing damage to documents as it goes yellow in time and stains paper and parchment. Some varieties become hardened, others glutinous and it may be quite a problem to recover a document in good condition that by ill fortune has had emergency repairs carried out with such tape.”5
Shallow flat drawers in map cases, also known as plan chests, are the best storage for maps, posters, architectural drawings and the like. If such large items must be rolled, it is safer to roll them around a suitable tube with strong paper or cloth on the outside rather than risk the damage likely caused by inserting and removing them from a long cylinder.
Storage of more conventional documents may take various forms, often determined by the scope of a collection and its housing, but also by the amount of time and skills required to execute various methods. Probably the least involved approach is to keep each discrete collection or part thereof in an envelope or folder. For delicate or fragile documents, the physical wear and tear involved with single
opening envelopes can cause further deterioration. A four-flap folder has been designed to overcome this problem. The multiple score lines enable it to be folded to accommodate various amounts of documents and still fit comfortably into an Archive box. The preferred material for this folder is 10pt Library Board, Bristol or Archival Cartridge paper.
Encapsulation has gained some popularity over recent years particularly for brittle paper. This involves sandwiching the document between two sheets of inert polyester (Melinex manufactured by ICI, or Mylar by DuPont) which is sealed on all sides. Ultrasonic welding gives the best results, but double-sided tape is also successful. Paper should be deacidified before this process, but repairs may not be necessary as the object is ‘held’ by static electricity. Melinex and Mylar are available in different weights, but it may be argued that the expense and waste of material is excessive. It increases the bulk of a collection, is highly reflective and gives very different tactile properties to its encapsulated paper contents. Polyvinylchloride (PVC) and many other plastics are not suitable for encapsulation as their internal plasticisers break down and give off gases.
Thin polypropylene bags available in a wide range of sizes may be considered; a sheet of paper slightly larger than the document will provide support especially when inserting or removing the item. If damage appears likely during removal, the bag should be sacrificed and slit open. Polyethylene is another acceptable material for storage. It is typically thicker than polypropylene and made up into larger bags for maps and posters.
If it is considered important that a bundle of papers be kept together more permanently than in folders, even though they may be numbered or otherwise identified, they may be adhered to secondary supports and made up as a guard and file, considered as a fascicule or bound into a volume. With guarding and filing, each item is ‘tipped on’ to single or sometimes folded sheets of paper. That is, the document is pasted by a narrow margin of adhesive along the edge so as not to obscure writing.
The guarded sheets are arranged so that some small documents are at the top, some in the middle and some at the bottom of their guard, to help give an even thickness to the file. Extra wide ones may be folded with an extra guard extending around the foredge. The guards are trimmed of excess and drilled or stab sewn into a loose-leaf volume. Individual items can be removed or the sequence rearranged by cutting the sewing thread or undoing the post binders, or Chicago screws.
A fascicule is a single section gathering of folded sheets, sewn through the fold, onto which documents have been tipped. This gives more protection to the contents as each leaf is larger than the documents and there is less handling when turning pages. A series of fascicules can be housed in a box and a reader issued with only the parts required. More substantial treatment involves binding into a volume which may be as utilitarian or elaborate as the collection and resources dictate.
Whether documents are guarded and filed, made into fascicules or inserted into albums or volumes, all preliminary treatment such as cleaning, deacidification and repair should be carried out first and adhesives used to repair and/or attach them to guards or leaves should be readily reversible in a manner that will not damage the document.
For this essay we have been looking at more or less conventional flat sheet documents, common to many public or private collections. The following quotation of uncertain origin, further defines the subject:
Aurignacian man painted upon the walls of a cave; Assyrians and Babylonians impressed cuneiform characters upon tablets of clay; the Egyptians fastened together the fibres of a water-plant and wrote upon them with reed pens; Romans made notes with a spike upon tablets of wax; Athenians scratched the name of Arisitides upon potsherds; and Man Friday left his footprint upon the sandy beach. Almost every record office contains its freak document of abnormal materials …


Anne Glover, Victorian Treasures from the La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria (South Melbourne, MacMillan 1980), p14 and 23 (illustration).


Guy Petherbridge, Conservation and Codicology. A regional study. The investigation and documentation of the physical aspects of Greek manuscripts. New Directions in Paper Conservation, conference notes, (Oxford, Institute of Paper Conservation 10th Anniversary Conference, England, 14–18 April 1986), p D137.


Thomas Pierson Diary and Notebook MS11464.


D. B. Wardle, Document Repair (London, Society of Archivists 1971), p1.


H. J. Plenderleith, Preservation of Documentary Material in the Pacific Area. A Practical Guide (Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service for Australia National Advisory Committee for UNESCO, 1972), p17.