by Louise O’Connor, Conservation

For most of us, paper is an everyday, throw-away thing. We may hang on to concert tickets, or precious letters, some old photographs or important family certificates. But what if you had to keep those things for ever and ever? Maybe you’re the family historian or an avid comic collector – then paper is a problem, as it’s not really built to last very long, and it’s all got to do with acid.

Paper is made from cellulose. Until the late 19th century, this was sourced from linen or cotton rags. With the industrial revolution came new methods of making paper from woodpulp, which proved a very cheap solution for everyday short-life items like newspapers, magazines or writing paper. However, woodpulp cannot make strong paper as its fibres are not long like cotton or linen, and it contains lignin. To make paper strong enough for a short lifetime of a few days’ use, various chemicals are added to the pulp. These chemicals degrade very quickly, turning acidic (something is acidic if it has a pH of less than 7) and breaking the cellulose fibres. The paper then yellows and releases a distinctive smell, like that from old paperbacks. This ‘brittle paper’ is a huge problem in libraries across the world, and of course here at the National Library too.

Brittle paper

When we say brittle paper, we really mean brittle!

But it’s woodpulp paper that many of us have in our family or hobby archives, so how do we protect and preserve our family papers? Here’s some tips…

  1. Hands off!
  2. Lights out!
  3. Avoid sticky situations
  4. Box it
  5. Absolutely no pongy plastics
  6. Fitting in counts!
  7. Location  Location  Location

Hands off!

Keeping your family collections absolutely pristine would mean having to lock them away in cold dark storage for ever! But that hardly makes much sense if you want to enjoy your collection… However, it’s important to limit handling, as this causes damage in two ways. Firstly, the natural oils on our skins can be transferred onto paper surfaces. These oils are absorbed into the porous paper and slowly turn acidic. A well-thumbed book will often have dark fragile edges, whilst fingerprints are especially problematic for some types of old photographs. There is a huge debate in the library world on whether to wear gloves when using library collections. While gloves can prevent oil transfer, they also dull your sense of touch, which you need when handling delicate things. Clean hands are the best compromise, and remember rough handling will lead to creases and tears, which only get worse with even more handling.

Light damage

Light damage to a watercolour

Lights out!

Light will permanently damage any colours and will cause the paper to age more quickly, turning it yellow and yep – more acidic! In this stark example, the edge of the drawing was protected from the light, but the centre has been changed as light damage has caused the blue pigment to fade.

Avoid framing your most treasured documents and putting them on display forever. The best thing is to take a photograph and put this on display or use it as a reading copy…

Avoid Sticky Situations

If you have something that is torn – DON’T repair it yourself … and NEVER use Sellotape – or any other tape! The tape may ‘fix’ your documents for now– but it’s BAD in the long-term! If you want your object to last forever the repair needs to last forever too. Everyday stationery supply tapes (and glues) can vary a lot but in most cases, it’s the glue that’s the problem. It’s often a rubber that degrades very quickly. As a thermoplastic polymer it ages and goes through three stages – from gooey > to yellow > to crispy. The glue often ends up looking like toffee, hiding the text underneath and becoming seriously stuck to the porous fibres in the paper.

Gooey (technical term) tape residue

Gooey (technical term) tape residue

It is acidic (acids+paper = bad if you haven’t guessed already) and will turn the paper see-through and will eventually crack and breakaway. It’s also best to avoid document tapes and glues that are sold as ‘archival’, as previous form has shown us that this isn’t always the case! If it needs repairing, always consult a conservator and keep the tape for your Xmas wrapping!

Dail Eireann

See what we mean!

BOX it!

It may seem simple or even pretty boring, but putting your precious family archives in boxes will help their preservation! At the very least a box will guard against dust collecting on your paper, eventually sticking to paper fibres with weak chemical bonds. But not any old cardboard will do – ideally your box needs to be acid-free, lignin-free and with an alkaline buffer for ‘permanent’ storage. Normal cardboard boxes will be made from woodpulp paper that will turn acidic very quickly, creating an acidic ‘micro-climate’. Your paper collection will absorb the acids, speeding up its degradation. It can be tricky to source specialist boxes, but one way around this is choosing archival folders and sleeves as a barrier. Normal stationery supplies are not suitable for long-term storage. If you can’t get your hands on archival card folders, then use non-bleached, acid-free, lignin-free artists’ card to make your own folders.

Absolutely no Pongy Plastics

Plastics sleeves are great for storing single sheets of paper. But there is good plastic and there is bad plastic. Most commercial stationery plastic sleeves are made from non archival ‘bad’ plastics. Bad plastics such as PVC (think budget plastic raincoats) degrade very quickly – within 30 years! PVC and other bad plastics contain other chemicals called plasticisers, that will also decrease the preservation of your papers. As the plasticisers degrade, they cause the plastic to become sticky and yellow and to pong!

Non-woven polyester (traded as Mylar and Melinex) is a see-through ‘good’ plastic and will not degrade. It is used for storing some printed papers, as the static will keep tears in place, and the polyester will prevent acids transferring from one paper to another by providing a barrier. However it’s not a one-stop-shop for all of your needs – don’t use it to house fragile photographs, prints or drawings!

Fitting in counts!

If your box is too big, then the documents and prints will slouch and crease; if it’s too small, they will be cramped and the pressure can lead to sticking. If you store things in smaller boxes or folders with the edges sticking out then they’ll quickly get tattered, torn and will fall apart. So if you have lots of paper, organise it all by size. Unfold sheets if you can. Don’t use paperclips or staples to keep items together, as they rust and eat into the paper. It’s also best to remove Post-its, rubber bands, twine, paper clips and any staples you find from the paper if you can. Next – it’s time to divide, folder up and label everything – yep, may not be exciting – but will protect fragile items and make it much easier to find things later.

Rust damage

Rust from metal paper clips on the left, and from metal staples on the right...

Location  Location  Location

Now that you’ve “housed” everything, you need to find your collection a permanent home. Paper is extremely sensitive to ambient temperature and relative humidity and so it needs a location that’s consistently cool, dry and away from direct sunlight or heat sources (like a radiator or a chimney breast). Water can seriously damage paper collections, and damp places can cause mould to break out … in all colours of the rainbow! Sometimes mould isn’t visible, but you’ll get a distinctive smell (like a damp cloth) and the paper will have a gritty powdery feel. So don’t put your precious things in the shed, attic or cellar. They’re your family’s heritage!

Mould damage

A book with mould damage

For more advice, explore some of these links below, or leave me a comment!


… a one-armed entrepreneur, the defining of Irish photography, and how the Easter Rising stole a part of Irish photographic history!

by Guy Phenix, Glasgow Based Stuff Maker

In 1865 a young man set up a studio in his mother’s toy shop in Dublin. This man’s entrepreneurship not just influenced my dissertation, it influenced the photos of Ireland you have taken and you probably don’t have a clue who he is.

His name is William Lawrence. His beautiful collection has been preserved by the National Library of Ireland, well most of it. Unfortunately a large selection of Irish portraits were lost during the 1916 Easter Rising. Upon looking at the buildings destroyed during the Easter rising we see “UPPER SACKVILLE STREET. 5, 6, and 7 — William Lawrence, photographer and stationer.” (Upper Sackville Street is now Upper O’Connell Street) We can only begin to imagine the sort of insight into Irish culture these moments in time could have provided.

Sackville Street

This was the devastation at 6-7 Lower Sackville Street following the Easter Rising, mirroring the devastation at the other end of the Street where William Lawrence had his photographic studios. NLI ref. KE 115

What I decided to do with these many images from across Ireland is what I want to talk about here. During my final year at the University of Ulster, Coleraine I wrote a dissertation: The influence of the Lawrence collection on Irish photography. This written dissertation was accompanied by a practical piece to emphasise and back up the theory in the written part.

Giant's Causeway

The Giant's Causeway, Co. Antrim from the NLI Lawrence Collection. NLI ref. LCab 326

I decided to use the photography technique “rephotography”, now made famous by the Dear Photograph blog. This technique uses original images, often cropped, which are taken to the same location where the photograph was captured. The photographer then holds the old photo up, aligned with the buildings or geographic structures, and photographs it in its new environment. This technique gives an amazing perspective of change and time. I decided to focus on the North Antrim coast, a very picturesque and much photographed location. I chose a number of photographs from the NLI’s Lawrence Collection. (Coleraine town hall, Bushmills distillery, the Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle and Portstewart harbour).

Coleraine Town Hall

Coleraine Town Hall from the NLI Lawrence Collection. NLI ref. LRoy 3951

I then wanted to see how much these photographs had influenced tourist photography at their specific locations. To do this I used Flickr. I typed in the various locations and up popped again and again photographs taken from the same locations, and from the same angles as Robert French had chosen. (French took most of the Lawrence Collection photographs.)

Coleraine Town Hall

Coleraine Town Hall rephotographed by Guy Phenix

Robert French clearly laid down what we call “Markers” for tourist photography. If someone has a photo of the Eiffel Tower we know that they were in Paris. We may know this because we have been to Paris and seen the Eiffel tower and all the signs for it. This is an “on-site marker”. If however we have seen postcards or posters saying this is the Eiffel tower and it’s in Paris, that is an “off-site marker”.

Giant's Causeway rephotographed

The Giant's Causeway rephotographed by Guy Phenix

What I proposed in my dissertation was that there needed to be a new definition for online photographs and information – Online Markers. “Online Markers” defines information that we receive about a location via online information. On websites such as Flickr we can find out so much detailed information about where, when and how photographs were taken. We also get detailed descriptions, titles and tags, all of which determine how we perceive the image. This is what I define as “Online markers”. I decided to use this in my practical piece by showing the similarities via an interactive map.

I also wanted to bring in the influence of “offsite” markers. I did this for my end of year exhibition which were created via postcards shown in the photos below. These postcards and the marker theory behind them added strength to the notions of the tourist gaze.


Postcards from Guy's end of year show depicting his rephotographed Lawrence Collection locations

This project however does not end here. The chance is now for you to look at how your local area in Ireland is represented in the National Library of Ireland’s Lawrence Collection. Take these photos and rephotograph them. Share with the world via “online markers” how your local area has changed…


Intro by Justin Furlong, NLI Newspaper Librarian

This is the fourth in a series of blogs connected to a joint project (Newspaper Descriptors Project) by the National Library of Ireland and the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI). The project aims to provide short descriptors or pen notes for the newspaper titles listed in our Newspaper Database here at the National Library. The descriptors include such information as publication dates, proprietors and funding, editors and significant journalists, circulation figures (if known), comment on the newspaper’s political affiliation, and mention any histories written on the various titles.

We’re delighted to share this short piece on Labour World written by Carla King, DCU historian and NLI reader…

Labour World

First issue of The Labour World on Sunday, 21 September 1890

The Labour World enjoyed a short but influential career as a penny weekly. It first appeared on 21 September 1890 and its last edition was published on 24 May 1891. It was owned and edited by Michael Davitt and published in London, its readership in Britain and Ireland. The newspaper was registered on 17 July 1890, with an office at No. 263, the Strand, London. The initial shareholders were: Davitt, D’Arcy Reeve, William Saunderson (proprietor and editor of The Democrat, which went out of publication when the Labour World appeared), and Rev Mr Seymour. Others joined as shareholders shortly after, namely Mr Sherlock, the journalist Bennett Burleigh, Richard McGhee and James Rourke. The initial capital was £5,000 but in September it was raised to £10,000, at which time Davitt increased his shares to 600.

The paper initially appeared successful, with 60,000 of the second edition ordered. However, its support declined in the bitter atmosphere of the Parnell Split. Davitt initially ran the paper himself, seeking contributions from friends and associates, but when he became involved in the Parnell Split and his health broke down the paper was managed by Charles Diamond. Eventually Davitt handed over editorship of the paper to Henry Massingham on 2 May 1891 but the paper only survived for three further issues.

Labour World

Robbery of Labour and Social Injustice. Detail from The Labour World masthead.

The Labour World was aimed at working men and women and covered a wide range of subject matter, including labour issues, news, sporting items, a women’s column, drama criticism, book reviews and serialised fiction. It was not affiliated to any political party but favoured the radical wing of the Liberal Party and Home Rule, and it also publicised Davitt’s Irish Democratic Trade and Labour Federation, founded in January 1890. It also became a mouthpiece for Davitt’s criticisms of Parnell.

Publications about the newspaper are:

  • Laurence Marley, Michael Davitt: Freelance Radical and Frondeur (Four Courts Press, 2007), ch. 3 ‘Crusading journalism and the Labour World’
  • Carla King, ‘Always with a pen in his hand…’ in Ciara Breathnach and Catherine Lawless (eds), Visual, Material and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Four Courts Press, 2010), pp 186-97.

Carla King
St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra

Michael Davitt

Unflattering depiction of Michael Davitt by John D. Reigh in United Ireland, a pro-Parnell newspaper. NLI ref. United Ireland 1892 August 13 (A)