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Caring for books and documents

We all own books, photographs, maps, certificates and various papers of sentimental, intellectual or family interest.

We may wish to keep these for record purposes or to hand them down within the family. Below are some suggestions for keeping them in good condition.

Our conservation department is unable to undertake any work on a commercial basis, but is happy to advise holders of archives in Norfolk about our methods of storage and repair.

Handling and storage

The factors that most affect the condition of books and documents are usage and mishandling.

Every time you handle a document you shorten its life a little. Handle it roughly and you shorten it a lot. 

Tightly packed shelves reduce air circulation and encourage tugging on spines to remove a book.

Articles in contact with other items of a poorer quality will be affected by them.

For example, acid migration from a cheap folder may damage even the best quality paper and photographs stored in poor quality albums may tarnish and discolour.


  • Wash your hands before handling books or documents
  • Place fewer books on a shelf to reduce damage
  • Large volumes may benefit from being laid on their sides
  • Avoid folding papers if possible; fold only once if you must
  • Keep smaller items together in good quality envelopes, folders and albums
  • Do not use self-adhesive tape on anything you wish to keep


Light, especially direct sunlight, can cause inks to fade and paper to deteriorate. 

Photographs and coloured materials are particularly susceptible to this kind of damage.


  • Place books, documents and framed articles away from direct sunlight and provide some shade in the room
  • Fit a roller blind or simple curtain on a bookshelf facing a window to protect valued books
  • Display copies rather than originals, so if they fade they can be replaced by another copy

Heat, humidity and moisture

Temperature and humidity (the water content of the air) are related.

Heat accelerates chemical processes within paper and leather, especially in moist conditions.

Rapid changes in temperature cause expansion or contraction, change in water content and condensation.

Excess moisture encourages fungal growth and may weaken adhesives or cause staining.

Too little moisture makes paper, leather and parchment shrink and become brittle and distorted.

The boards of a book may warp so badly that they tear away from the textblock.

The recommended levels for storage of archives are 45-60% relative humidity and 13-19oC temperature.

This may be difficult to maintain in the home, so cool, dry, well-ventilated conditions are best.


  • Do not store materials in kitchens, bathrooms, cellars, attics, garages or conservatories, which are subject to rapid changes in heat and humidity.
  • Keep materials away from direct heat sources such as radiators and storage heaters.
  • Do not situate bookshelves against a damp wall - avoid outside walls if possible. Dry lining can help.
  • Provide air space behind shelving.
  • Avoid paraffin or portable gas heaters, which produce moisture as well as heat.
  • Glass fronted shelves protect against dust, but can seal too well, containing humid air and providing a 'greenhouse' environment. Drill ventilation holes and cover with gauze, or leave doors open a little.

Pollution, mould, insects and vermin

Rats, mice and some insects can damage archival materials. Dust and dirt encourage the growth of mould and insect infestation.

Dust also contains aerial pollutants from the combustion of fossil fuels. The sulphur reacts with moisture to produce weak but persistent sulphuric acid.

Soot and dust from domestic fires can also prove harmful.


  • A vacuum cleaner is best for cleaning shelves and boxes, as the dust is contained rather than redistributed. Dust volumes closed, using a soft brush to direct dust towards the nozzle. A very powerful vacuum may damage materials, so exercise caution.
  • When 'spring cleaning', wash down empty shelves with a mild detergent and dry thoroughly before replacing items.


Photographs are by nature unstable and difficult to preserve for long periods, but these basic suggestions for storage and display can greatly enhance their effective life.


  • Handle photographs by the edges unless you are wearing gloves and avoid touching the face of prints, negatives, transparencies or plates 
  • The best protection for prints and negatives is polyester enclosures - this material is clear, strong and chemically inert
  • Albums with polyester pockets are superior to 'sticky back' varieties
  • Traditional photo-corners are fine if the page is of good quality
  • Negatives should be stored in sleeves and placed in an envelope or folder; they are an original and irreplaceable item
  • When it is necessary to write on prints, use a soft (2B) pencil on the back and press lightly to avoid embossing the surface
  • If displaying prints use copies where possible, that way, the original may be properly stored and preserved

All these suggestions are for information purposes only. They are not intended as, nor should they be taken to be, a substitute for obtaining independent professional archival or conservation advice.

Norfolk Record Office does not and cannot accept responsibility for any loss or damage howsoever caused as a result of any person acting or failing to act on the suggestions made.

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