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Ask MAKE is a monthly column where we answer your questions. Send your vexing conundrums on any aspect of making to [email protected] If we don’t have the answer, we’ll scare up somebody who does.

Non-archival paper that has yellowed over time.

In the post November is Paper Month, Susan asks:

What makes paper archival … or how long will it last?

Dear Susan,
Paper in it’s normal state is naturally acidic, leading to eventual degradation. However, most paper made today is acid-free due to a couple of factors. The filler used in paper used to be China clay, whereas now it’s chalk, which naturally has a high pH, making the paper pH neutral. It’s also often treated with magnesium or calcium carbonate, giving the paper an alkaline surplus. This protects the paper from further acidification, such as from sulfur dioxide that occurs naturally in the air.

Acid-free paper has a projected lifespan of 500 to 1000 years, depending on quality. As grades of paper increase to “conservation grade”, the standards become stricter. Lignin levels are kept below 1% in archival paper (lignin causes paper to become yellow and brittle over time).

True archival grade paper is made from a different material altogether — cotton rag. Used in documents of exceptional legal or historic value, cotton is significantly more durable over time at a neutral pH when compared to paper made from wood pulp.

I hope this answers your question, and all are welcome to contribute to the comments with additional information.

Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.


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