Less than one in 10 people keep their important documents in a storage facility, while over half use unsuitable conditions that ‘could see files begin deteriorating in just one week’.
In the right conditions, documents can last for centuries, but many contemporary files are decaying much more quickly.
Research shows that some 50-year-old paper is already in worse condition than records from 500 years ago due to factors including the composition of modern paper, production processes and pollutants in the atmosphere.
Emma Dadson, key account director from Harwell Restoration, said: “To protect documents from deteriorating, keep the environment clean, dry, with a moderate temperate, secure and pest-free.
“If [documents are] stored in damp environments, mould growth can be established as quickly as a week.”
Research shows that if the humidity in storage environments is higher than 65%, mould growth can occur, but if it is lower than 40%, the documents can become dry and brittle.
Jonathan Richardson, managing director at secure archiving specialist Russell Richardson, said: “Office climates often fluctuate as air conditioning or heating systems tend to only be used in working hours. This can cause the physical bonds in paper to weaken and speed up the deterioration process.”
A recent survey by Russell Richardson found that 16.9% of people store documents in boxes and 21.2% use folders or ring binders as storage.
These are highly effective methods of protecting records from dust, which brings danger including insect infestations and chemical deterioration. However, standard cardboard boxes and file folders are only suitable for temporary packaging.
Emma said: “Documents stored in boxes, drawers or in some kind of encapsulation are usually protected to some degree. However, boxes kept on the floor of a carpeted office would suffer more damage than a box kept in a storage company as the carpet tiles often act a bit like a sponge.”
The National Archives recommends using archival boxes and files for long-term storage, and to ensure boxes are labelled clearly and never overfilled.
Jonathan said: “If the documents need to be accessed often, it is important the boxes are not too heavy or stacked too high, as this can lead to further damage.
“Anyone using folders for storage should be aware that this can expose the edges of documents to dust. Ring binders also put records at risk of tearing.”
Russell Richardson’s survey also discovered that almost one in 20 (4.6%) people store important records in a tray on their desk, while 16.7% use drawers as a storage space.
Jonathan continued: “When used for storage, it is important that drawers open and close easily and that they aren’t overfilled, as this can lead to damage.
“Documents stored on a tray may be exposed to light, which can cause ink to fade and cause paper to whiten or discolour, due to its bleaching effect. The files will also be vulnerable to dust.
“In an office environment, records are commonly handled too often, which can cause creases and tears. The documents may also come into contact with unclean hands, and possibly food and drink, which can attract insects and trigger mould growth.”
Some storage facilities use industrial safety systems to preserve documents.
“Storage facilities dedicated to documents have risk management policies in place to ensure that records will be safe in their care. This may include environmental control to ensure humidity and temperature stay low,” Emma added.