How to Preserve Old Books and Delicate Historic Materials

It is important to recognize just how fragile these types of paper-based records really are.  Many books and historical documents that were created after the 1830’s and before the 1980’s were created on paper made from wood pulp and alum-rosin sizing.  This combination resulted in acidic conditions that accelerated the deterioration of paper.  Paper made earlier than the 1830’s was made from rags, which has a better survival rate than the acidic wood pulp mixture used for the 150 years when many important documents were created. Other materials used before the 1830’s include Papyrus and Parchment.  Parchment, being made from treated animal skins was by far the most durable and the most expensive.  Today, there are parchment documents that have survived from the 13th century.  Papyrus was much cheaper, but wore out more quickly and, since it is destroyed by moisture, few papyrus documents survive to the present day.All of this explains why a 500-year old document may be in better condition than a document from 50 years ago.    But even those well-preserved documents will deteriorate eventually, and, for the most part, must be very carefully handled, if at all. If you’re responsible for preserving and maintaining books, newspapers, periodicals, tabloids, catalogs, magazines, historical records or other delicate materials, one of the best ways to ensure the integrity of the printed content is through digitization or scanning.

What Types of Documents Should You Scan?

Some of the valuable and irreplaceable historical documents that we’ve helped to preserve are old newspapers and old mining maps.   Some of the other types of documents that require digital preservation include:

Rare Book Volumes

By using specialized Book Scanners, a scanning service bureau can capture all images, including tightly bound book gutter information.   Whether you choose to have the scanning done at your site or at the scanning service bureau site, it’s important to ensure that the scanning service works closely with your archive custodians to ensure that all volumes are handled appropriately and all data is preserved.

Laboratory Notebooks

Sewn notebooks must stay intact in order to preserve the evidence and date sequence.   Millions of dollars can be lost if a research laboratory or pharmaceutical company is unable to prove that their records have not been tampered with.

Historical Vital Records

Older governmental books and records, such as Births, Deaths, Marriages and  Land Records were often recorded in large permanently bound liberals.  These archival liberals are normally scanned within the public buildings where they’re filed in order to maintain continuous access for the public.

Standards for Digitizing Historical Archives and Books

There are usually two goals when converting paper data to digital.  The first, as we’ve discussed is the preservation of the data that resides on paper that may be fragile and deteriorating.  The second goal, of equal importance, is making that electronic data readily and easily available.  The internet and cloud-based technologies make this ready access possible.  However, in order to ensure that the data is scanned and formatted for easy appropriate guidelines should be considered.

Some of the requirements that you should address include:

  • Digital Image Capture – production master files, image parameters, digitization environment, color management, etc.
    Minimum Metadata – types, assessment, local implementation, etc., needed to ensure useable master files
  • File Formats, Naming, and Storage – recommended formats, naming, directory structures, etc.
  • Quality Control – image inspection, metadata QC, acceptance/rejection, etc.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has a document titled “Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Archival Materials for Electronic Access” that is readily available on the National Archives website. While this document is intended to provide internal recommendations for use by NARA for digitizing projects involving NARA holdings and other partner organizations, it contains a wealth of helpful information to consider when you establish your own guidelines.


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