What is Archival Paper and Why is it Important?

Curious why paper companies always tout their archival quality products? This post explains

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Suppose several lifetimes from now, someone stumbles upon your valuable documents in analog form. Will the papers be a brittle, moldy, yellowy mess? Or will they have successfully withstood multiple periods of time? Archival paper makes the latter possible.

If you’re curious whether such types of paper are worth their hype, then read on.

So, what is archival paper? Archival quality paper resists deterioration due to being made using an alkaline papermaking process. Strictly speaking, this process turns cotton rags into cotton pulp, which is a 100% acid-free material. With such a high alkaline reserve, the paper can keep its original color and texture for centuries.

What Does Archival Quality Mean?

An archive is a collection of important things that are meant to last. So, “archival quality” is a label given to items that are resistant to change because of their physical and chemical stability. As long as their environment doesn’t drastically change as it did in The Day After Tomorrow, things in archival storage should retain their original properties for a very long time.

What Makes Paper Archival Quality?

Archival paper must be acid-free. Otherwise, the acid will react with environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, and sunlight – this chemical reaction ultimately ruins the paper over time.

The history of paper reveals that much of it was made from trees. Well, trees happen to have an organic “glue” called lignin within their cells, especially bark cells. It’s this lignin that reacts with the elements, turning into an acid compound that causes the degradation of paper.

That’s right, trees aren’t acid-free. Bummer!

Instead of using wood-based pulp, then, manufacturers wanting to make archival paper must use a totally neutral, alkaline material. The ideal material? Pure alpha cellulose fiber – or, in laymen’s terms, 100% cotton fibre. This fibre is extracted from cotton rags, a far more resilient substance than wood pulp.

True archival-quality paper is therefore made of pure cotton pulp rather than tree pulp. Hmm, this does make sense. My white cotton shirts have yet to turn yellow! Cotton rags are also much more durable than wood-based pulp.

Are Acid-free and Archival Paper the Same Thing?

Because the terms “acid-free” and “archival quality” are often used interchangeably when describing high-quality art paper, many people confuse the two. Technically speaking, however, they aren’t the same thing.

Manufacturers originally used the term “acid free” when referring to the BASE papermaking process. But they didn’t take into consideration the COATING, or refining process, which would be introduced in later years. Although the alkaline reserve of the base paper might be high (pH of 7+), the chemical coating (called the buffer) also has to be highly alkaline for the paper to be considered conservation-grade.

What does this mean? Just because the paper is acid-free doesn’t necessarily mean it’s archival quality. However, ALL archival quality paper MUST be acid-free. Hope that makes sense!

Permanent

Archival paper is permanent. In print terminology, permanence refers to how resistant the paper is to change WITHOUT exterior forces, such as through handling or due to the environment.

Basically, if the base material is left there in a vacuum, will it yellow? Will it become brittle? Will its contents fade?

As mentioned already, as long as you’ve got non-acidic paper, your work stands a much greater chance of lasting through the ages.

Durable

Durability and permanence are related in the printing realm, except durability measures how resistant the paper will be WITH exterior forces applied. Durable paper isn’t necessarily permanent paper. For example, cheap cardboard could take a beating but its high acidity can’t handle natural aging very well.

Cotton rag (alpha cellulose fiber) is far more durable than traditional groundwood (tree) pulp. This stuff ages better than you and me. If all goes well, pure cotton paper will still feel creamy and almost fresh for upwards of 200 to 250 years, likely more.

Lightfast

A paper’s lightfastness gauges the extent to which it will retain its original color, brightness, and whiteness upon exposure to light.

Sunlight tenderly feeds the plants and gives us Vitamin D. Sadly, though, it wreaks absolute havoc on many materials, including paper and ink. In a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, sunlight beats everything.

No alkaline paper is completely lightfast, contrary to what the manufacturers tout. True protection can come only from the darkness. So, although your Arches or Strathmore archival sheets may be the best-printed products on the market, make sure to store them – and any other art paper or photographic materials – away from UV light.

What is Archival Paper Used For?

The alternate title for archival-quality paper – Museum-grade – speaks volumes on what it’s used for. Museum professionals take great care of paper collections, ensuring any long-term storage adheres to strict universal standards. So historical, legal, and secular documents of monetary, national, or sentimental value such as

  • legal contracts, affidavits, and signed agreements;
  • title deeds and wills;
  • national records;
  • photographic and art prints;
  • hand-drawn artwork;
  • and hand-written letters

can and have been preserved till this day because of archival paper.

Despite being pricier, this useful type of paper is widely available, which means you can incorporate it for any and all archival purposes. Having said this…

Should You Use Archival Paper For Journaling?

For us journal keepers, it’s a fascinating thought that our printed word could last generations. If you’re transcribing for more than mere office productivity, then likely you’re seeking some form of analog permanence.

My advice is to pick a decent notebook with thick, acid-free paper for your journal, but not necessarily archival quality. For one, it’s just too overkill. Besides, most commercial paper these days (about 80%) is acid-free, and the majority of journaling notebooks contain such.

You COULD go all out and invest in a superior archival quality notebook, or even an artist’s sketchbook with conservation-grade acid-free, buffered paper. But for daily journaling, this is like cutting steak with a katana.

Plus, just because the paper is archival quality, doesn’t mean it can’t be tainted with acid from other materials. For example, the inks and pigments you use – are these acid-free? What about the stickers, the Washi tapes, the accessories, the clippings – are these all acid-neutral? If any of them aren’t, you might as well brush off the “archival” label.

Properly Store Your Journals

It’s far better to journal with notebooks containing less expensive, acid-neutral paper and store these in archival-quality BOXES. Such conservation tools are not only acid- and lignin-free but are constructed to block dust and light. This is certainly the wiser, more practical way to preserve your legacy.

How to Tell If Paper is Archival Quality

To tell if your paper is archival quality, I’d simply use the following formula:

  • Acid and lignin free + 100% pure cotton fiber/rag + watermark = true archival quality paper

It’s as simple as that. True archival quality paper is not only acid- and lignin-free, but also made of pure cotton rag rather than wood-based pulp. Additionally, most manufacturers embed a watermark on each of their sheets as further confirmation. This trio of specs is usually enough to gain your trust.

In terms of brands, high-quality selections for artists include Canson, Arches, Fabriano, Rives BFK, and of course Strathmore. Using such trustworthy brands is an international standard for the fine art community.

Many household names such as Epson and Canon also manufacture archival-grade paper for printing and writing. But again, examine the specs. True archival quality paper is always made from pure cotton, not tree pulp.

Related Questions

What is buffered paper?

Even if the paper itself is created without using lignin – in other words, acid-free – it could obviously come into contact with other acidic materials as it’s handled. What’s the point of creating an acid-free product if it will inevitably be contaminated with low pH chemicals anyway?

This is where a buffer comes in. A buffer is a protective coating that acts as an acid neutralizer. Trace amounts of acid that make contact with the buffer will then be “canceled out”. Many paper manufacturers coat their sheets with a layer of calcium carbonate – commonly known as chalk – which is a more alkaline chemical.

Although buffered acid-free paper is quite resilient to the elements, it can’t be the sole determining factor for archival paper.

How do you keep paper in good condition?

All important papers should be first of all kept in an archival-grade box. In turn, the box should be stored in a controlled environment, preferably one with a temperature of around 60 to 70°F (15 to 21°C) and relative humidity of between 40 and 50%. If the papers aren’t stored in covered boxes, they should be kept away from light (especially sunlight at all costs).

Sources

What Does ‘Archival Quality’ Mean? – innovaart.com

Paper Permanence – Forest Products Laboratory (fpl.fs.fed.us)

Definitions of Paper Quality – printwiki.org

Buffered and Unbuffered Storage Materials – Conserve O Gram (nps.gov)

Protect Your Pics By Understanding Acid-free and Archival Paper – lfp.canon.ca

Leo Cai

Leo Cai

Leo Cai, the one solely responsible for the inception of this Mickey Mouse operation, has at least garnered the acceptance of Casey Cai - his wife. He used to view himself as an avid writer back in high school, with grandiose dreams of making a living using words. That never culminated because, as he himself puts it, "It's more practical to stock bakery shelves while striving to become a professional photographer".

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About Us

We’re Leo & Casey Cai, and Journaling Diaries is our outlet for sharing what we’re learning from the lightweight, nearly disaster-proof hobby of journaling. So far, we’ve found that journaling isn’t merely a shameful tool for hard times or a poor memory. It’s enriching & fun. Whatever, whichever, however – as long as it involves journaling – we’ll be covering it all here. Thanks for stopping by!

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