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Caring for Handwritten Documents

By Matt Reimann. Jan 5, 2015. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Rare Books, Book Care, Learn About Books

Handwritten documents belong to a special part of a branch of print-collecting called ephemera. The Ephemera Society of the United Kingdom defines such artifacts as "the minor transient documents of everyday life." Ephemera encompass everything from leaflets to tickets to trading cards. There is a particular challenge in the preservation of ephemera, as ephemera are not made to last beyond their brief application. This often means that the materials used are less durable than those of a typical book. Thus, there is a gleeful rebellion in the act of preserving ephemera. While the documents were intended to be discarded, as the collector, it's your duty to ensure it lasts through the ages.

Although there are certainly exceptions, many handwritten documents were not meant to last past the period of their use. When a rock star scribbles lyrics on hotel stationery, or an author pens a kind letter to a fan, the last thing either is thinking about is whether these documents will last for decades.

As collector, the responsibility of preserving handwritten documents is passed on to you. Below, we've compiled some tips about keeping the items in your collection in the best shape possible. 


  • Edith_Wharton_letter_PD-313695-edited-427275-editedMany book conservation guidelines also apply to handwritten documents. It is always a good idea to keep dust and dirt away from your document, to handle your papers with clean hands, and to minimize your documents' exposure to heat, light, and moisture.
  • Paper products are hygroscopic, meaning they absorb and release moisture. Part of keeping a good environment involves minimizing the fluctuation of humidity in your place of storage. The more humidity fluctuates, the more the paper will expand and contract, which will accelerate its deterioration. 
  • The Library of Congress recommends an environment cooler than seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit (twenty-two degrees Celsius), and a relative humidity of thirty-five percent. For this reason, storing your documents in attics, basements, or bathrooms is discouraged. One of the great dangers of high humidity is that it is conducive to mold growth. At higher levels and temperatures, you risk your document falling victim to foxing.
  • As with nearly all printed material, sunlight causes fading and discoloration. Handwritten documents can be displayed very nicely in a frame, but make sure you choose the correct materials for presentation. Use a non acidic backing, and use an acrylic glaze that blocks at least 90% of damaging ultraviolet radiation. Museums are fond of UF-3 Plexiglass, an acrylic sheet made by Rohm and Haas.
  • Even though there are frames that can block much of the sun's damaging rays, it is recommended you still minimize exposure to intense light.
  • If you do not use a frame, and are storing your documents with others in your collection, try to keep your papers separated. It is recommended that you use a neutral or alkaline acid and lignin-free paper as a barrier between documents, so that one page's acidity does not leech and damage another. 
  • There are many manuscript boxes available for use. Be sure that none of your papers slouch or bend when in storage. If your box is not fully packed, fill it in to keep your papers upright. 

The White Glove Conundrum

White_GlovesAs we've mentioned, dirt, dust, and oil are to be kept as far away from your documents as possible. One way to put a barrier between human contaminants and your precious artifacts is by wearing gloves. White gloves are used because they have no dye that could run on the paper, and cotton is a relatively inert material and will not chemically interfere with the integrity of the paper.

However, despite their legitimate benefits, there is a valid contention against the wearing of white gloves. Overall, the oils on our hands are easily washed away with soap and do not replenish themselves very quickly. In addition, cotton readily carries the oils found on your skin, so if you touch a part of your body with gloves on, you've introduced those same contaminants you've worn them to avoid.

Yet perhaps the main case against the antiquarian's white gloves is that they make one's hands less precise. If you've ever tried to tie your shoelaces with winter gloves on, you've noticed that hands become more clumsy when covered by gloves. By putting a barrier between your delicate document and your hand, you sacrifice your sensitivity and increase your chances of tearing or damaging the document. 


  • Repairing old documents is intensive and deliberate work. If you have a handwritten document you want to repair, you're nearly always going to want to employ the talent of a professional restorer.
  • If you are restoring a document as an investment, make sure you get an estimate. This way you won't end up paying more to repair your document than what it's worth.
  • Do NOT use rubber bands, adhesive tape, or glue to repair your document. 
  • Some documents may benefit from a surface cleaning. If your document is written in pencil, or another medium not embedded in the paper, an unskilled cleaning can damage the document. Such delicate documents should be cleaned by a professional.
  • Always use a brush for dry surface cleaning. There are also special erasers you will want to use, the Northeast Document Conservation Center has a comprehensive breakdown about surface cleaning procedures.
  • If your paper has a tear, it can be repaired by a professional. Typically, a Japanese paper made of kozo fibers is applied to the tear with a water-based adhesive. The edges of the new paper are generally torn rather than cleanly cut, for structural and aesthetic purposes. These types of repairs are also reversible, should new labor be required.  

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Matt Reimann
Reader, specializing in Twentieth Century and contemporary fiction. Committed to spreading an infectious passion for literature, language, and stories.


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