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 O'Hara Township, Allegheny County, PA

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By Diane Nichols

This lesson was reproduced by Roots web in 1998 with the author’s permission.


Old documents are often rolled or folded and stuck in drawers and old cedar chests for years before someone moves them to another drawer!  They are aged into their storage shape and can crack apart with handling.  They are dry and brittle.  They need help.

Look around your home for a container with a tight fitting lid, but not so tight that the container needs to be tipped for a grip to take off the lid.  New galvanized garbage cans work well for large documents.  Plastic bins work well for several smaller documents.

Inside the clean container, place a heavy bowl with a flat bottom.  Inside of THIS bowl, place a glass or bowl of water.  Your documents can be placed, several at a time, around the outside of the larger bowl.  Do NOT place them in the water or in a position where they can fall into the water.

Place the lid on the container and leave it alone for several hours – no peeking.  This whole apparatus should be in a closed room, out of the way of playing children, playing dogs and your mother who is intent to dust everything in the house.  The paper will absorb water molecules from the trapped air inside the container.

After several hours, check the paper for flexibility.  Does it unroll well without forcing it?  Can you unfold it without any resistance?  Telling when the paper is ready is like making bread dough.  There is a time when it just feels right.  Some papers hydrate very quickly within 6 hours or so.  A large Victorian certificate made of very heavy paper can take up to 24 hours to hydrate.

Purchased before you start this operation will be two large sheets of white blotter paper, still available at art supply stores.  Lay one sheet of blotter paper on a table and spread the hydrated document as flat as possible on the paper.  Make sure that folded edges are flat and that any torn edges lie as close together as possible without overlapping.  A set of stamp collector’s tweezers are the perfect tool to help you accomplish this.

Place a second sheet of blotter paper on top of this stack, being careful to cover every inch of document without creating folds in the document.  Carefully weigh the whole surface down with heavy books (this is one use for a set of encyclopedias).

The blotter paper will absorb any excess moisture.  Leave the document pressed for 24 hours.  If you take the stack apart and your document rolls up by itself, it’s probably not hydrated enough or pressed long enough.  Repeat the process of hydration for another 4 to 6 hours and press again for another 24 hours.

After uncovering your pressed paper, you can begin restoration.  Small smudges of dirt and pencil can be encouraged off with a Pink Pearl eraser.  Do not use a pencil eraser or another kind of eraser, and be very gentle with the Pink Pearl application.  Decide if the risk of damage is worth the effort.  Trying to clean a dirty document also puts the printed and written words at risk.  There are liquid solutions for cleaning documents, but I know librarians who will not try these methods, so I don’t either.

Several companies available on the Internet offer encapsulation materials.  I have used Light Impressions in the past, as they will sell small lots of materials.  You will need to buy repair tape, Mylar sheets and double-sided tape.  All must be of archival quality.

Rips in the documents do not have to be repaired, but sometimes the printed words are more readable if the paper is reinforced.  A pH neutral repair tape can be torn into small sections and applied to the back of the document for this purpose.  I use Filmoplast P tape, which is milky, but appears transparent after application.  Do NOT use Scotch tape EVER!  Old tape can often be removed with little effort, but the paper underneath is usually permanently stained and printed and written words sometimes come off with the tape.

Mylar top-loader envelopes are fine for storing small 8 X 11 papers.  Archival companies offer them at top prices.  The one very popular discount store usually carries good quality top-loaders for about $4 for 50 sheets.  These can be stored in notebooks, but protect them from dust falling onto the top surface by covering the notebook or storing it in a container.

Many documents are larger than the average piece of paper and need a bigger storage sleeve.  Mylar can be bought from archival companies in pre-cut sheets.  Very large documents require the purchase of a Mylar roll.  The Mylar will come in clear or frosted surfaces.  You will also need to purchase double-sided tape with a neutral pH.

Lay your hydrated, pressed document on a Mylar sheet cut about one inch larger than the document measures.  Center the document on it, leaving at least ½ inch of Mylar extending beyond the document on every side.  You will need to have cut a second Mylar sheet the same size.

Unroll a length of double-sided tape that is ½ inch longer than the side of the document you are working with first.  (You can do this without measuring if you are careful).  Place the sticky side of the tape onto the Mylar about ¼ inch away from the edge of your paper document.  Do not have it extend to the edge of the Mylar.  The tape will have a paper cover on the second sticky side.  Leave it in place for now.

Continue with 3 other pieces of tape, framing the document near, but not touching its edges – about ¼ inch away from it on all four sides.  You will need to leave an air pocket space between the tapes at the corners.  I was told to leave a 1/8 inch gap for air flow.

After checking to make sure your document is lying flat, with no folds, lay the second piece of Mylar on top of the first, sandwiching your document in a clean environment.  Check to make sure you are not also preserving bits of dirt, strands of hair from you or your pet, or insects that wiggled into the field.

Set a clean weight on top to this stack – reuse one of those encyclopedias.  This will hold the stack still so that the Mylar and document will not move as you continue to work.

With your tweezers, work one edge of paper lining loose from one length of double-sided tape at a corner.  Gently holding the top sheet of Mylar away from pressuring your work spot, strip the entire length of paper covering off the one piece of tape.  Allow the Mylar to lie on the tape and gently press the two pieces of Mylar together on that side.

Repeat this process on all four sides, being careful to not make a ripple in the tape, document or Mylar.  This can be very frightening the first time you try it!  However, realizing that people get nervous, the manufacturers made the tape removable for a while.

After checking the stack for mistakes, seal the tape better with your clean fingers, or a clean cloth (I use an old squeegee roller).  Trim the outside edges of the Mylar if you need to.  Store the document flat in an archival box or an artist’s portfolio for the best preservation.

Diana Nichols is a local genealogist and Greenwood Cemetery Historian. She may be contacted by email, or by writing or phoning the cemetery at: Greenwood Cemetery, 321 Kittanning Pike, Pittsburgh, PA 15215-1117, (412) 963-7060

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