Research work at The National Archives

Our research programme helps us predict the long-term stability of The National Archives' holdings by increasing understanding of:

  • the materials used to create records 
  • degradation processes 
  • the steps required to mitigate deterioration 
  • the relationship of materials to the environment in which they are stored and handled

Understanding degradation

From structural change to perceived damage: appropriate environmental conditions for parchment

A three-year post-doctoral Fellowship, funded by the Science and Heritage Programme, started in June 2010 to investigate preservation environments for parchment documents. This study, a collaboration with Cardiff University, will examine the microscopic changes to the structure of collagen in parchment which occur under different storage conditions and result in visible damage. It will enable improved guidelines to be developed.

Project aims

  • Define perceptions of damage of parchment records among different user groups and practitioners
  • Create a damage scale linking the structural state of collagen and perceived damage category and identify at what stage structural change becomes critical interventions are required in order to mitigate decay and damage
  • Determine temperature and relative humidity levels for historical parchment documents in order to mitigate further perceived damage, leading to modifications of conservation practice

This work builds on previous research studies to characterise parchment records, undertaken in collaboration with Cardiff University Biophysics Group and with support from The National Archives for Scotland:

  • Assessment of degradation of historical parchment by biochemical and spectroscopic methods
  • The effect of hydration and relative humidity on the molecular and mesoscopic structure of parchment

Modern materials

Lifetime of colour photographs in mixed archival collections

This three-year collaborative doctoral project, which began in 2009, aims to construct a computational model of the effects of micro- and macro-environmental conditions on the degradation of colour photographic media. This will enable us to calculate the lifetime of colour photographs and inform the future preservation management of such collections.

Techniques

A ground-breaking experimental design for artificially ageing colour photographs will be planned and executed. A study collection of colour photographs will be analysed with the use of an array of analytical techniques.

The results will be correlated to spectral components of spectroscopic measurements. A model of the environmental effects on the stability of colour photographs will be constructed and validated with non-invasive measurements of a collection of colour photographs from The National Archives, in order to estimate their life expectancy.

Other areas of concern

Heat-set tissues

Dating back to the 1960s, heat-set tissues were once applied to paper as a remedial conservation treatment. The nature of the substrate and adhesive, combined with the application of heat, can be detrimental to the long-term stability of laminated documents. 

Plastics

The issues surrounding the identification and deterioration of synthetic polymers, or plastics, are of growing concern within the heritage sector. They pose significant stabilisation problems because of the processing methods, additives and treatments used. The routes of degradation are often complex, requiring an intimate knowledge of the material's chemical and physical properties in order to develop conservation and preservation protocols.

No research is currently in progress, but some preliminary investigations have been carried out and these areas remain on our agenda for possible future work.

Materials testing and assessment

The National Archives, with support from the British Library, has carried out tests on materials commonly used in preservation and conservation of library and archive collections, in accordance with agreed international testing standards in independent laboratories. Reports will be added here as they become available.

Evaluating archival box board (PDF, 0.13Mb)

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