Archival Preservation of Autographs

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Archival preservation of autographs consists of maintaining them in an environment that is durable, chemically inert, and designed to preserve the content of autographs in their original form.  A well-designed archival display for autographed material should not only enhance the presentation of your autographs, but also protect it from chemical reactions to the environment.  Traditional autograph displays are openly effective for a few years and may in time cause irreparable damage to your collection.  This article explores different ways that autograph collectors may display and protect autographed material.

Plastic Holders

A wide variety of plastics are used to display album pages, photographs, paper documents and baseball cards.  However, not all plastics are safe and many types will damage autograph collections.  Polyvinylchloride (PVC), for example, readily degrades when exposed to light and heating, resulting in emission of plasticizer by-products and harmful gasses.  This commonly used plastic will cause deterioration of photographs and paper.

As a general rule, avoid plastic materials with surface coatings, UV absorbents and plasticizers.  Polyester plastics such as Mylar “D or Melinex #516 are probably the best forms of plastic materials for storage and display because they are inert and semirigid.  Other acceptable forms of archival quality plastics include polypropylene, polyvinyl acetate and polyethylene.


Framing is one of the most common methods of archival preservation of autographs. The supporting board and covering mat should be made of acid-free inert material.  Ordinary cardboard should not be used in frame displays since it will emit substantial quantities of peroxides and lignan by-products that stain paper autographs.

Black mounting paper, readily available at most retail outlets for photo mounting, is highly acidic and will fade your autographed photos.  Most conservationists advocate 100% ragboard as the safest material for mounting and backboard.  This is available in a limited range of colors and textures.

Hinges and other devices used for fixation should also be composed of acid-free material.  Autographed album pages may be safely secured to a mat with Japanese rice paper and wheat or rice starch paste.  Masking tape, cellophane tape, synthetic adhesives or surgical tape, release by-products that are harmful to paper collectibles.  These products should be avoided.  Although linen tape is commonly used, this material dries out after a few years and may leave a mark on the back of paper.

A glazed front with either UV glass or plexiglass UF3 will screen out glare and harmful ultraviolet light.  UV filtering varnishes are avoidable but are not durable and will tend to bubble over time.  In large autograph frame displays, glass is impractical because of its heavy weight.  Be sure that the glazing does not come in contact with the autograph.  Condensation on the back of the glass may stain paper that is in contact with the glass.  Paper material needs space to breathe and move.

If a tight enclosure is used to press autographed paper to the glazing, it may become corrugated; a condition referred to as cockled.  In addition, moisture condensation on the interior of the glass may be transferred to adjacent paper.  An autograph recessed from the glazed surface in a mounted well is ideal. Felt tabs (bumpers) applied to the back of the frame will hold the frame away from the changing humidity encountered along the walls of the house.


Encapsulation is a technique designed to protect material from environmental conditions.  Properly performed encapsulation may provide an effective means of protecting delicate documents that need to be displayed and repeatedly handled.  The material to be protected is loosely sandwiched between sheets of clear polyester or polypropylene.  The edges of plastic are then sealed with double-sided pressure-sensitive tape.

Mylar-D is commonly used for encapsulation because it is free from damaging plasticizers, surface coatings and dyes.  However, autographs done in charcoal, pastel and certain types of pencils may be lifted from the underlying paper by static electricity generated between the plastic film layers; therefore, these types of autographs should not be encapsulated.

Some conservators argue that encapsulation accelerates deterioration of certain types of paper.  This is of particular concern with highly acidic autographed material that releases chemical by-products harmful to itself.  For this reason, autographs on paper may be deacidified before encapsulation or protected from self-destruction be adding a sheet of buffered paper as a loose backing.

Most autograph collectors will agree that an autograph worth collecting is worth preserving.  The principles and practice of archival display and storage are of paramount importance to the autograph collector who aspires to gather a collection worth preserving.

The recommendations provided in this article are of a general nature.  Collectors should consult with a qualified conservationist for their specific requirements for archival preservation of autographs.

Source by David Thoreau

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