Causes of Archives and Records Deterioration and Their Methods of Control

There are many different reasons why records and archives deteriorate and the best most cost effective way to protect records and archives is to ensure the good and orderly physical and administrative management of the entire organization. In this paper, the author is going to explain with typical examples the causes of deterioration to records and archives and their methods of control.
Archives are defined by Roper (1999:4) as "Records, usually but not necessarily non-current records, of enduring value selected for permanent preservation. Archives will normally be preserved in an archival repository." He Roper (1999:19) further defines records as, "a document regardless of from or medium created, received, maintained and used by an organization (public or private) or an individual in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business of which it forms a part or provides evidence."

The most significant factor is the nature of archival materials themselves is acidity. Acidity is the quality of being acidic or sour. Acidity is the opposite of alkalinity or sweet. Acids contain high levels of positively charged hydrogen ions that can make paper fragile. These hydrogen ions can be introduced during the paper manufacturing process, from writing inks or from poor storage.

Mahapatra (2003:64) goes on to add that "the most common acid deterioration is caused by sulphur- dioxide present in small amount in the atmosphere. The amount of sulphur dioxide is larger in industrial environment. The sulphuric acid, when it reaches to about one percent accumulated in paper and moisture. The traces of iron and copper present in paper or leather binding act as a catalytic agent to change sulphur dioxide gas into sulphuric acid. It causes degradation of cellulose fibers of paper by breaking down the molecular structure.

Mahapatra (2003:65) goes on to say that paper acidity comes from sizing elements of alum and rosin. Cook (1999:13) also says 'size' is added to paper during manufacturing process to add strength and make it less absorbent. Unfortunately, during the process sulphuric acid is formed, and this attacks the cellulose fibers. Acidity in inks, paper adhesives and even in photographic materials.

To minimize the effect of paper acidity, it is therefore necessary to test the pH of paper records and archives, before introducing any materials to the archives institution or records office, if there are concerns about the high acidity. It is also possible to test the pH of archival storage materials to ensure they are as stable and neutral or alkaline as they are supposed to be. It is also possible to avoid any paper that is high in acidity especially when creating an archival record.

Light can affect the stability of archival materials. Light speeds up the oxidation of paper records causing materials to deteriorate faster. Light also has a bleaching action causing coloring papers and inks to whiten or fade. At the same time light can increase the chemical activity in causing changes in color.

Light also generate heat which speed up the chemical reaction/process of degradation of materials. Ultra violent light is the most harmful light because the wave length of ultra violent is very active generating more radiation. Ultra violent light is found in sunlight and florescent light, so both types of light need to be controlled in the archival institution.

Cook (1999:19-20) says it's possible to measure light if there is a serious concern about the level of light, particularly in an archival repository. Light is measured in 'lux' a unit of light intensity. If the room or repository received more light than is required, it is necessary to control it. The effects of light can be reduced by keeping all materials covered boxed when not in use and by providing only the minimum amount of light. Curtains can be placed on windows to control natural light. Fluorescent lights should be avoided in records storage areas and replaced by incandescent light which don't generate the same level of radiation.

Temperature can be to a great extent affect the stability of records and archives. Excessive heat can cause records and archives to deteriorate faster. Bajpai (1999:190) argues that "The rate of increase in the deterioration of paper is even faster, doubling, for every increase of approximately 4 degrees Celsius"

Rapid changes of temperatures can be more harmful than a consistently high temperature says Bajpai (1999:191). The oscillating temperature stress paper which will result in paper damages. When books or paper is exposed to heat, materials becomes brittle and crack easily "It causes dehydration and paper loses its usual strength" Bajpai (1999:191)

To monitor the level of temperature a thermometer is used. It is used to measure fluctuations in temperature. The ideal temperature for paper records is 18-20 degrees. If there is excessive heat fans can be distributed in the records rooms in order to cool down the temperature. Rapid fluctuations should be avoided.

Temperature and Relative humidity work hand in glove in the deterioration of records. Relative humidity is defined by (Cook (1999:15) as "The ration of the amount of water vapor in the air to the amount that would be present at the same temperature were the atmosphere to be fully saturated. Relative humidity is expressed as a percentage"

"Paper materials swell or shrink as relative humidity changes as organic materials are hygroscopic. They may cause water soluble inks to ran and paper which is coated with china clay or chalk to stick" Bajpai [1999:58.]

The recommended relative humidity is 35 -40% and not above 50%. High temperatures combined with a high percentage of relative humidity can encourage the development of algae. It is therefore necessary to monitor both temperature and relative humidity regularly, if not on a daily basis.

A thermo hygrograph is an instrument that records the fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity by means of internal sensing instruments. A data logger can also be used; it requires a dedicated computer and special software which requires power supplies. Lastly a whirling hygrometer and a relative humidity indicator which uses paper indicators used against charts can also be used to detect changes of relative humidity.

It is important to open windows for aeration in conditions where storage areas had high relative humidity. Cook (1999:18) recommends that materials should be stored away from outside walls to allow circulation and that storing materials in basements or areas of high relative humidity should be avoided.

Air pollution can also contribute to the deterioration of records and archives. Air pollution can be a serious hazard to records and archives particularly in urbanized to industrialized areas. Air pollution can also appear within a building, photocopiers, cleaning, paints, untreated wood and certain plastics and adhesives all certain gases that can pollute. These pollutions can also damage equipment and materials, dirt and other particles are also pollutions which then penetrate materials and promote chemical and physical deterioration. Pollutants can also come from paper products especially those made from poor quality materials as newsprint.

While it is difficult to control pollution in especially if the records and archives institution is located in an industrialized environment, filters can be placed to filter out polluting particular. Poor quality paper must be stored separately and that records should be stored in boxes and cabinets to keep out dust and dirt. Sealing untreated wood such as shelving with an interior latex paint to keep wood particles from adhering to records can minimize pollution. Lastly, dusting and cleaning regularly and thoroughly to keep dirt particles at a minimum can also minimize pollution.

Biological agents can also affect the stability of records and archives media. Paper which is organic is subjected to biological infestation by mould spores, insects, rodents and mice. Insects such as silverfish and cockroaches and others, these biological agents are attracted by glues, paper itself, binding adhesives and even sewing thread.

Feather (1996:45) says "The elimination of insect infestation is an expensive undertaking for which specialists would normally have to be employed---The elimination of vegetable matter from the (records and archives) institution and its outer walls is one factor. Planters and flower displays inside, and creepers growing on the outside wall, may be aesthetically pleasing, but can encourage insects---The proper care of all the wooden parts of...(records and archives building) whether structural or in the form of furniture or shelving, is also critical, since termites breed in wood"

Furthermore, foodstuffs and drinks should not be used in a records room, since insects will be attracted to food stuff. Food should be consumed in a room specially assigned for eating and the room should be and the room should be cleaned regularly. Fumigation can also be used if there is an outbreak of insects and fumigation should be done by a trained fumigator.

Lastly, records can deteriorate through abuse and mishandling. Activities that may damage records are, rough handling of paper, poor photocopying practices, excessive use of materials, handling fingers with dirty hands, deliberate acts of vandalism, theft of material, inadequate security, etc

Cook (1999:29) says, "Steps should be taken not only to protect materials in archival storage but also to ensure staff, researchers and office personnel understand the need to handle records and archives carefully... Specifically, it is important to consider the following, make security copies of valuable materials, particularly if originals are being used a great deal. If possible, do not put original materials on display at all but use copies a surrogates. Store fragile or oversized materials appropriately,, ensure there is close supervision of the research area. Screen potential users of records for security concerns. Issue guide-lines for the appropriate use of the materials.

Since preservation is a crucial element in the whole operation of a records program, it is therefore necessary for records managers and archivists to store records in conditions that makes records have a prolonged life. Selecting good quality materials will also help in preventive preservation that also seeks to reduce risks of damage and to slow down the rate of deterioration.

1. Cook, Preserving Records, UK, IRMT, 1999
2. Roper, Glossary of Terms, UK, IRMT, 1999
3. Feather J, Preservation and the Management of Library, Collections, London, Library Association Publishing Ltd, 1996
4. Bajpai, Preservation and Management of Lib Col, India, Ess Ess Pub 1999
5. Mahapatra, Preservation in Libraries, Ess Ess Public, India, 1999

  Etiwel Mutero holds  a Bachelor of Science Honours Degree in Records and Archives Management from the Zimbabwe Open University.Do you want assistance in writing your college or university assignment? You can contact Etiwel Mutero on 00263773614293 or 

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