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What is Archival Paper?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Many important documents need to be preserved for extended periods of time. Conventional paper products will slowly degrade, thanks to the high level of acid which normally exists in paper. Archival paper is made slightly alkaline or with a neutral pH so that it will not yellow and turn brittle with age. Most paper companies offer such papers in their line for archivists, governments, libraries, and artists. However, it is important to remember that this type of paper is only useful under the right conditions.

Two primary factors contribute to the degradation of conventional paper. The first is lignin, a component of the cell walls in plants. Lignin will turn yellow as it is exposed to heat, causing yellowing paper. Acid makes the paper more fragile, thin, and brittle. Newspapers provide perhaps the best example of the antithesis of archival paper, since they are made as cheaply as possible, as most people recycle them after one reading. Newspapers quickly turn yellow and brittle, an undesired trait in important documents.

Historically, important documents have been printed on vellum, a material made from calfskin. With a wider adoption of paper, people started noticing that their paper documents were not as durable as those printed on vellum. The discoveries of acid and lignin led to the development of archival paper.

The process for making this paper is more complex, resulting in a more expensive end product. The paper is thoroughly treated to remove lignin, and then is made pH neutral, or preferably alkaline, with the addition of soda ash or calcium carbonate. Alkaline paper will be better able to resist the acidic environment than neutral paper. The resulting product holds ink and colors well, and will last far longer than conventional paper.

However, archival paper prefers alkaline conditions. Many companies sell archival tissue sheets which can be laid between sheets of archival paper, and alkaline storage boxes for the paper. The paper should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place to extend its life even further. Most document repositories have humidity control measures in place to ensure that their paper is kept in the best conditions.

In addition to important documents, archival paper is also used by artists so that their work will be preserved. Scrapbookers may also use it in archival scrapbooks, and important editions of books are printed on this type of paper so that they will last. Most paper supply stores offer a selection of archival papers, which are sometimes designated as “lignin free” or “pH neutral.”

AboutMechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AboutMechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By closerfan12 — On Sep 09, 2010

@musicshaman, earlyforest -- Archival tissue paper is used for storing antiques, stuff you would wrap in paper, like Christmas ornaments and family heirlooms.

Many people also use archival tissue paper to store their wedding gowns.

You don't use archival quality tissue paper to stuff gift bags, any more than you would use parchment paper to print off directions.

By EarlyForest — On Sep 09, 2010

@musicshaman -- I don't know about archival tissue paper, but be a little more fair when it comes to archival ink jet paper -- a lot of universities require their students to use archival quality paper for their theses and senior projects, so archival ink jet paper, "fancy-pants" as it may be, has its uses.

By musicshaman — On Sep 09, 2010

I was trying to buy some archival quality photographic paper the other day, and I was shocked at how many kinds of archival paper products are out there.

Not just the different kinds of archival photo paper (of which there are many), but actual different kinds of archival paper, like archival tissue paper.

Now why on earth would you need archival tissue paper -- don't you use tissue paper as filling in gift bags?

And don't even get me started on the fancy-pants archival matte inkjet printing paper...

By anon3830 — On Sep 19, 2007

Very well done! I am pro artist and this issue is a top one for lasting artwork, made and sold at a nice price. Buyers expect the artwork to endure, and so, most good artists will do all in their power to keep acid and other image corruptors away from their work. And yet, it is nearly impossible to be totally protective of all elements at and near the art.

Artists guarantee for repairs and restoration because of this factor. Even with the best acid-free papers and pro-UV-protective framing, other acid/head/glare/dampness/chemical invasion issues may still cause some image damage.

But most artwork is done with acid-free papers, not only for the painting, but for ALL framing materials, even tapes, have a really fine prognosis for durability without corruption.

Thanksomuch for the article on this key issue. elle fagan

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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