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Paper: Deterioration and the process thereof

Acid Migration Photograph

A severe example of acid migration. Courtesy of Stewart Southard.

There many factors that contribute to the deterioration of paper. Acid migration, ultraviolet damage, careless handling, poor paper quality, and natural aging are all contributing factors. Nancy E. Gwinn in "The Fragility of Paper: Can our Historical Record Be Saved?" attributes the deterioration of paper to the poor, highly acidic quality of modern paper, less than adequate storage conditions, and pollution. [1] Dale S. Hunter argues that the acidification of paper is the number one cause of paper deterioration. Since modern paper is full of acidic materials the acidification of those documents will naturally occur. This process can be hastened by poor humidity, temperature, storage, pollution, and light control.[2]  

Because modern paper is highly acidic and is made with short fibered cellulose that is derived from wood pulp the deterioration of paper from acid damage is very common. As the chemical composition of paper begins to break down the acid attacks the fibers of the material that were used to make the paper. Longer fibers handle acid much better than shorter fibers. As paper ages its strength is weakened by the acid and eventually becomes yellow, dry, and brittle.[3]


[1] Nancy E. Gwinn, "The Fragility of Paper: Can Our Historical Record Be Saved?," The Public Historian, 13, No. 3 (1991): 33. 

[2] Dale S. Hunter, Developing and Maintaining Practical Archives: A How-To-Do-It Manual (New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2003), 158-177.

[3] Alabama Department of Archives and History, "Conservation Leaflet: Cleaning and Preserving Books," Alabama Department of Archives and History, (Accessed January 30, 2012)