What Does "Archival Quality" Mean?

When you are creating your family archives, you will most likely have to rehouse your family treasures in suitable storage containers, such as folders, enclosures, and boxes. These items are often described as “archival” or “archival quality” by their manufacturers, but these terms convey no specifics about their preservation use.

Storage containers should be made of materials that are strong, durable, and chemically stable. Enclosures should be tailored to the size, condition, and use of the items being enclosed. As a home archivist, you will have to evaluate the specific characteristics of each product and chose the appropriate ones. You should consider the acidity, alkalinity, and the presence of lignin.

Acidity and alkalinity are measured by of pH scale from 0–14. The pH of archival storage materials should range between 7 to 8.5, which means it is acid-free.

Although acid-free materials aren’t acidic when they’re manufactured, they can become acidic over time. For this reason, an alkaline buffer is often added during manufacturing to neutralize acids that may be produced over time. Most paper collections will need buffered enclosures. Some types of collections sensitive to alkaline materials, such as blueprints, some photographs, and textiles, should be stored in pH-neutral enclosures.

Storage materials should also be lignin-free. Lignin, a component found in plants and trees, can react with light and heat to produce acids and darken paper if it is not removed during manufacturing.  

Folders

Acid-free folders are available in both buffered and unbuffered stock. Heavier weights are available for oversized maps and prints.

Boxes

Boxes suitable for long-term storage are available in several types of board that are acid-free, lignin-free, and buffered. They should be sturdy enough to support their contents, have reinforced corners, and have tight covers that prevent dust from entering.

Interleaving Material

Interleaving sheets of tissue, glassine, paper and polyester film protect items in storage. Acid-free tissue is available with or without an alkaline buffer, as is paper. Polyester film can also be used, as long as it is not used with pastel or charcoal because it creates an electrostatic charge that can damage this media. Use glassine instead.

Plastic

Clear plastic enclosures are useful for items that are delicate or frequently handled. Clear plastic provides no protection from light, so items in these enclosures should be placed in boxes for long-term storage. Polyester, polypropylene, and polyethylene are three types of preservation plastic. Polyester is used for folders, sleeves, and envelopes. Polypropylene is used for containers. Polyethylene for sleeves and bags is flexible and frosted.

To learn the preservation secrets used by libraries, archives, and museums to protect their priceless materials (that you can also use for your family heritage items) read my book: 

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