What Goes Wrong with Records

Many factors threaten the permanence of our nation’s historical legacy.   Since records and the paper, cloth, leather, paste, and glue they are made of readily absorb and release moisture (hygroscopic), records can biodegrade surprisingly fast.  At LBS, we seek to provide our customers with superior preservation and management options.  

This section discusses the most common Records Management issues as identified by our conservators.  Our summaries are based upon decades of conditions assessments in government archives, basements, and vaults.  The following examples are not staged or recreated, but are drawn from various assessments and preservation projects—they are represented just as LBS conservators found them.


This volume illustrates the damage metal fasteners cause to records.
Foxing Closeup
The red and brown rust stains on this paper are known as foxing.

Several factors contribute to the chemical breakdown of historic volumes and documents due to the off gasses of deteriorating metal or rust.  These include the metal content of the book spine, the surrounding physical environment, and non-archival fasteners.  As pictured, these off gasses eventually completely destroy the historic fabric of the volume.  Another symptom of metal oxidation is foxing, or fox-like reddish and brown color stains or blotches on paper.

no paperclipno metal clipno stapler

rust on spinesEven with regulated Relative Humidity (RH) the metal content of the spines and non-archival shelving (left) will eventually turn these spines to powder. The LBS binders have a lifetime warranty against rust—the number one failure of our competitors.  Our metal mechanism and book block apron are constructed of stable corrosion proof 316 stainless steel—which does not emit harmful gaseous pollutants the way cold roll steel does.

page extenders
Page extenders are an inappropriate "quick fix." The underlying causes of sheet-margin deterioration must be corrected to save this volume.
linen backing
Another repair practice of past years applied Japanese tissue or linen to the back of sheets.

With the use of an non-archival adhesive, acid eventually migrates to the paper’s fibers, causing stains and deterioration.  This breakdown causes the paper fibers to fatigue and ultimately fail. 

no postitsno glueno tape

damage from iron gall ink
Acidic Iron Gall ink has "burned" completely through this document. Without preservation, this document is at risk.

Iron Gall ink is a permanent or indelible ink made from tannin (vegetable sources), iron sulfate, gum Arabic, and water.  

Originating from the Middle Ages, it was still the ink of choice until the mid 20th century.    Due to its popularity and widespread use, its long-term harmful effects are prevalent today.  Originally purple-black in color, with age the ink fades from black to brown.  With a high acidity content, the ink eventually begins to “eat” through papers.  If temperature and Relative Humidity (RH) are unmonitored, this acidic ink can deteriorate rapidly.

brown paper
This folder has yellowed over the years due to its acidic content.

In the past, paper makers would add bleach to obtain a clean white sheet.  As time passes and the chemicals in the paper deteriorate, the paper becomes acidic.  Chemical deterioration is evidenced by yellowing or browning paper.  This deterioration causes the paper to become brittle and lose its fold endurance.  

Lamination 1
lamination 2

Laminating leads to serious conservation problems.   A professional conservator will never use any method of repair that is not 100% reversible.  In the lamination process, the film is applied by pressing an adhesive into the paper’s fibers with heat and pressure.

In the pictures to the right, these vital historic records were laminated then unfortunately exposed to high humidity during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The resulting mess is not from submersion; moisture penetrated the lamination. This encouraged mold growth.  When these documents were originally laminated, the script was readable. However, the aggressive mold ate away this script, and with it, a bit of New Orleans history.

This lamination is not reversible.  If a conservator were to attempt to pull the lamination film from the paper, the document would disintegrate into mush.
Forward Leaning Stack
The improper storage of county records can lead to serious damage. In this example, the pressure of the slanting pile of volumes weakens the spines of the volumes underneath.
Damage from forward leaning
An example of the damage resulting from forward leaning.

The improper storage of volumes can result in forward leaning.   Forward leaning is a destructive Records Management issue because the pressure of the forward leaning book stack damages the binding(s) of books underneath.

book block damage
book block damage2

Once a volume’s binding fails, damage quickly escalates.  Individual documents are free to move from the protection of the book block.  With exposure, these fragments become abused and are susceptible to loss. 

fire damage
Fire damaged sheets before preservation
fire damage halted
Fire damaged sheets after preservation

Even though fire can cause loss of historical information, partially-damaged documents can be saved and preserved—thus allowing data to be salvaged.   The LBS conservation lab is equipped and its technicians trained to retard the effects of fire damage and preserve the media to an archival quality state.

abuse 1
Unbound documents are exposed to outside hazards and are susceptible to damage and loss.
abuse 2
abuse 3

Even with careful use, exposed fragments become damaged.  In addition to everyday wear and tear, unsanitary conditions also affect collections.  Dirt and other pollutants can serve as ignition sources and weaken exposed or unbound papers.  No food, drinks, plants, tobacco products, wooden furniture, or ink pens should be allowed in an archive.   Even trash should not be allowed to collect near records storage.   The surrounding environment should be carefully monitored for insect or rodent presence.

index 1
index 2

Index Books sustain the most use.  Thus, they suffer from higher levels of deterioration.  Paper strength is completely depleted from continuous use and tabs are lost. To guard against this problem, strong index sheets and maintenance are required. 

The Index Books pictured on the right are examples from two different government records archives.  Since these vital records require continued public access, these examples illustrate the immediate need for preservation services.


Water is the great destroyer of historical fabric and information.  In addition to our preservation services, LBS also offers disaster recovery educational assistance and quality products to guard against the threat of water damage.

With the introduction of water, first red inks smears, then blue inks, and lastly black inks.

Visible signs of active mold

While temperature and air circulation are crucial to a document’s life span, it is humidity and water which are the most destructive.  Maintaining 40-45% Relative Humidity (RH), is optimal, but costly.   RH refers to the amount of water vapor present in the air.  The maximum acceptable total RH variation or operating range is 5% on either side of this set point.  Never allow RH to go above 55% or below 30%.   

Unregulated temperatures above 75°F and RH above 60% encourage the spread of mold and other bacteria within 48-72 hours.  Artificial aging tests by the Northeast Document Conservation Center concluded “that each 9°F increase nearly doubles the rate of deterioration, even in the absence of light, pollutants, or other factors.”  Unfortunately, in local courthouses, it is not if the air conditioning is going to break, but when .  LBS has developed products to mitigate the effects of such disasters.

Please note: The removal of mold should only be attempted by a preservation professional.
pigeon files
Numerous courthouse records are still tri-folded and housed in “pigeon files or shuck cabinets” (colloquial names), although this storage method was judged destructive and an outdated fad over seventy-five years ago.
torn files from pigeon holing
Pigeon files, or shuck cabinets, require drawers or “cans” to be pulled out for access to the housed instruments.  As is evident in this photograph, the sliding function shreds fragile documents, while the tri-folded state weakens paper strength.

As technology and understanding of paper deterioration advances, archivists have concluded that many former acceptable practices cause more damage than realized—corrosive shelving, destructive filing methods (see “pigeon files” at right), and inappropriate binder components or other “protective” housing mediums.

Direct sunlight should not reach archival materials at any time.  For this reason archives are generally located in the middle of buildings—so as to increase security and eliminate exposure to natural light.  The ideal storage space will have no windows or skylights.   Low intensity lighting works best because it shields records from harmful ultraviolet (UV) light and heat. 

Collections storage guidelines stand true no matter the site—whether in-house vault, offsite storage center, or alternate/back-up storage location.  Each is susceptible to man-made and natural disasters.  The most common destructive forces are temperature, humidity, fire and flooding.

Regular maintenance (such as regularly changing air filters and cleaning supplies) will assist Records Managers in keeping documents free from damage and fire hazards.  Another factor is air contaminants from situational objects, i.e. binders, envelopes, cleaning compounds, fragrance dispensers, proximity to vehicle traffic and emissions, cigarettes, paints, carpet, etc.

The surrounding environment should be carefully monitored for insect or rodent presence.  Both types of pests can cause irreparable damage (see below).

rodent damage
Rodent damage
insect damage
Insect damage
nonarchival material
This volume is a perfect example of why pockets should only be made of polyester. This volume’s pages are brittle and cracking within their sleeves. The tape’s adhesive has reacted with the sleeve.
Oil Discharge from Pocket
This oily by-product produced from PVC transfers to the document destroying information on the plat/map/engineer prints.

The protective housing will determine the “life or death” of vital county records. The housing’s composition will have a chemical reaction with paper fibers and ink—whether that reaction benefits or harms county assets can either save money or cause unmitigated expense. 

There are a variety of plastic film protective enclosures on the market.  The only appropriate film for archival use should be manufactured from chemically stable material. It should have a high pH, be free of plasticisers, coatings, and ultraviolet absorbers, and pass the Photographic Activity Test.

Unfortunately, some vendors and manufactures continue to sell products they claim are archivally safe, but these products do not endure the test of time for preservation needs. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the most common misrepresented archival plastic. PVC, cellophane, polyvinylidene chloride and rubber hydrochlorides should not be used. Archival plastics should not cause chemical reactions between the plastic and the items they are intended to protect.

Louisiana Binding Service, Inc., 300 Ampacet Drive, DeRidder, Louisiana 70634
Phone: 800.365.8330 or 1.337.460.8323     Fax: 1.337.460.8324