Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 1, Number 2
Jul 1994

Paper Permanence Debate II:
The ISR Workshop
July 6-8 at ASTM Headquarters

by Ellen McCrady

The debate over whether lignin affects paper permanence has gained momentum and taken shape in the last couple of years. Archivists and librarians recently identified lignin and its effect on paper permanence as one of the top research priorities on their wish list (Abbey Newsletter, June 1994, p. 17, "Research Invited on Preservation Concerns"). Five Five of the speakers at a recent conservation conference in Paris addressed this topic (APA, June 1994, p. 1). ASTM Subcommittee D 6.20 on Permanent Records Papers has seen vigorous debate on this topic in recent years. And the workshop at ASTM headquarters in July revolved around this issue, though it covered all aspects of permanence and aging.

Nothing has been settled yet, though. Librarians and archivists, on the one hand, have little doubt that lignin has a bad effect on permanence because they see the dismal effect of natural aging on the groundwood papers in their collections, though they know that deacidification can slow down that aging dramatically.

Some scientists from the pulp industry, on the other hand, deny that lignin affects permanence at all, even in the acid range, except to enhance it. They object to the 1% lignin specification in the ISO and ANSI/NISO standards; in fact, they object to all standards based on composition specifications such as a minimum carbonate filler or a maximum lignin content.

The two sides in this debate are so far apart that it seemed impossible for them to even begin a dialog, until the ISR entered the picture.

The Institute for Standards Research (ISR), a subsidiary of ASTM, held a workshop in Philadelphia July 6-8, to start planning research to address the issues in this debate. ASTM has a lot of experience eliciting consensus from groups that include opposing interests. It is a world-wide standards-setting organization, and it always invites all interested parties to take part in the process, making sure that there is a good balance between producers and users or neutral parties. ASTM's subsidiary, ISR, was set up six years ago to facilitate research needed by the standards committees as a basis for their decisions. ISR offers administrative support, not only as a facilitator, but as a fund-raiser.

It was a blue-ribbon group. Thirteen of the 15 speakers on the first day had PhDs, and the 100 or so who stayed for the small-group discussions on the second and third days represented major industrial, governmental, independent and collection-holding organizations from around the world that have a stake in the outcome. Many of them were researchers themselves, and could have given first-rate papers of their own. They came from 12 countries besides the United States.

Background for the Workshop

The initiative for this meeting, and for the whole project, came largely from Canadian pulp mills that make CTMP. (Earlier news items on this development ran in the Sept. 1992 issue of the Alkaline Paper Advocate on p. 29; Dec. 1992, p. 44; and Nov. 1993, p. 33.)

A new ASTM subcommittee, D 6.50 on Paper and Paper Products Composition, was organized last year to explore ways of formulating permanence standards based not on the composition of the paper (i.e., the lignin and calcium carbonate and perhaps even the pH as specified in all modern standards) but on the performance of the paper. (Since we cannot wait three hundred years to measure actual performance, the only alternative seems to be the use of accelerated aging to predict the approximate longevity of the paper.) Like other ASTM committees, D 6.50 has a balanced membership. This workshop was one of the steps in the program of that committee.

The expenses of the workshop, and of the planning meetings that preceded it, were borne by 20 sponsors, which included 12 paper industry companies and eight cultural institutions or governmental agencies. The sponsors also planned the workshop. A new set of sponsors will be solicited for the research program. No one can say for sure yet how much money the new group of sponsors will be asked to supply, but two figures that have been mentioned are two million and three million dollars.

All those present at the workshop welcomed the prospect of new research on permanence and accelerated aging. For the last few decades, the need for research has built up more quickly than it could be satisfied, and there is a backlog. Furthermore, industry has been doing its permanence-related research largely in isolation from the collection-holding institutions. That isolation has now been broken, and new possibilities have opened up. Several participants mentioned the historical importance of this occasion. What made it historical was simply the fact that it happened, if nothing else. The purpose of this meeting was to provide a forum for the broadest possible input into the requirements of a research program--and this is what it did.

Industry Research & Conservation Research

Although a few individuals in the paper industry have done permanence-related research, sometimes in collaboration with conservation scientists, the industry itself does not have a continuing tradition of permanence research. Until the last year or two, few industrial researchers were aware of permanence research by library and conservation scientists. In fact, one of the industry people present was still referring to this body of research as "anecdotal evidence" even after hearing the conservation scientists' papers. He was not typical. Several of the industry scientists expressed interest in doing research on historical papers.

People from the two research communities swapped references to major abstract journals and databases in both fields, and one industry researcher had kind words to say about Restaurator, which he had discovered in the library. (This international journal, established in the 1960s, publishes original research on book and paper conservation.) John Waterhouse of the Institute for Paper Science and Technology said that the IPST Abstract Bulletin has been abstracting literature on recycling, and will now cover permanence.

Some attendees who were unfamiliar with the fields of permanence research and conservation couldn't understand what all the discussion was about. Twice they tried to wind it up by saying, "You tell us what you want, and we'll make it for you." Others were afraid of unreasonable demands from the "cultural community" and of costly changes in their papermaking methods, like those changes resulting from environmentalists' demands for recycled and chlorine-free paper. They described the massive scale on which the mills produce printing and writing paper, and doubted that their entire output would need to qualify as permanent, since only a tiny fraction of it would have to be kept for a long time. (One asked, "Do we treat all the tonnage from a mill as permanent?" and another wanted to know why 1% of the purchasers should dictate to the other 99%.)

Repeatedly the discussion came back to the question of whether it was possible to identify ahead of time those copies of books and documents intended to be retained indefinitely, so that they, and they alone, could be put onto permanent paper. I described how this idea was given a good try in the 1930s or thereabouts, with "library editions" of books and rag paper editions of the New York Times, and how it was abandoned when the advantages were seen to be outweighed by the costs. Karen Garlick, a conservator formerly with the National Archives, said that the creators of documents in archives are frequently unaware that the documents will be appraised 30 years later for permanent retention; the 60,000 cubic feet of records that the National Archives takes in each year, she said, make up less than 1% of the documents created by the government. Somebody else drew a parallel with airbags: We have them in our cars, he said, and we like to have them there all the time, though we very seldom use them. Another said, "Good paper should be cheap and ubiquitous."

There were other questions that were asked, and answered, or not answered, and asked again. (Our discussions in both the large group and the small groups were orderly but disjointed, because of a ground rule established by the facilitators to guarantee that only one person spoke at a time: you could not speak unless you were holding "the stick," which was actually a felt-tip marker. By the time your turn came, other topics had been raised and your context had evaporated. The stick method did, however, prevent arguments and promote listening.)

Questions that kept coming up were: What is permanence? Does it mean a lifetime of 50 years? or 1000? or what? Should each grade (kind) of paper have its own permanence standard? Should a standard have one level of permanence, or two or more? (One comment on this subject was that Sweden had had four classes of permanence in its 1907 standard; administrators were relieved when they were replaced by a single class in the 1964 standard.)

Other questions were: How many kinds of permanence are there, really? (The industry leaned toward mechanical and optical, omitting chemical permanence or stability.) And: How can you tell when a paper has reached the end of its life? (Embrittlement is the big factor here, but how important is yellowing? Some people said yellowing of books and documents is not objectionable, as long as you can read the text, but a framer present said that the pages of books are often framed as works of art. For these books, it is objectionable. Light is a major cause of deterioration in framed objects, and changes in their appearance are taken seriously. Another point made was that microfilming of paper darkened by aging is more expensive, because the cameras are not easily adjusted for different exposures.)

Who is the end user? What does the end user want? These questions were not simple to answer. Papermakers usually see as their end user the printer or other customer who runs paper through a machine. In the context of permanence, however, the end user is a long way down the line. Participants from the conservation community contributed these comments:

Libraries and archives don't buy paper.

The librarian and archivist are our "trial end user."

Archives are sometimes the intermediaries. Scholars are end users. The ultimate end use is from members of the public who come in to use documents.

It's the library users too. The libraries hardly ever choose the paper they require.

There was a question or two on the permanence of recycled paper, but no answers or comments were offered.


The biggest disagreement, of course, concerned the effect of lignin. Canadian industrial research has yielded results that amazed the participants from the art, library and archival world. These were some of the pro-lignin statements made:

  1. 1. Lignin has no effect on permanence, even below pH 5.
  2. 2. Lignin-containing paper is stable to pollutants.
  3. 3. Ozone increases fiber bonding of mechanical pulp, but lignin-free paper is degraded by ozone.
  4. 4. Lignin is an antioxidant that protects cellulose.

One rather mild comment summed up the reactions of those familiar with real-life paper in collections: "It is surprising to hear about such beneficial effects of lignin. Surveys in the Netherlands and other countries show that groundwood is unstable."

The conservation chemists and other researchers present who had observed the rapid aging behavior of groundwood (typically during tests of deacidification agents or of board and paper used for storage enclosures) must also have been somewhat skeptical of these statements. Their research has been published, but generally not in the mainstream literature. It appears in the "grey literature" of preservation and conservation: in government and institutional reports, and in papers given at professional conferences.

Another disagreement concerned the type of standard that would result from the research, and whether it would have to depend on accelerated aging tests. A speaker from Germany had been invited to come and describe the German paper permanence standard, DIN 6738, which was approved two years ago. This standard relies on accelerated aging. It was written by some (not all) paper companies, and was approved by DIN, but not until after all librarians and archivists had resigned from the committee in protest, or had their membership cancelled by DIN. The speaker did not acknowledge this, but spoke as if all parties had participated in writing the standard. Several people asked him about whether the cultural community had accepted it, and what had been done to persuade them that it was a good idea. He dodged every question. Finally someone in the audience said that it wasn't sold to the librarians. In reply to another question, the speaker admitted that no users were known to have tested any papers for conformity to the standard.

This importance of testing by consumers was not gone into at any length. Most participants may have perceived a permanence standard only as something that manufacturers conformed to, or did not conform to. However, permanent paper standards also function as an aid to precise communication for both buyer and seller. If the seller can say, "My product meets Standard Such-and-Such, and I can prove it," the consumer should likewise be able to say, "I will accept this shipment as soon as I check it out to confirm what you say."

The German standard, however, is hard for the customer to use, because it relies on some expensive and time-consuming tests. Calcium carbonate and pH are not mentioned in the standard. There are three strength measures; an accelerated aging requirement (which, for the two highest classes of permanence, takes 24 to 30 days); and a formula that must be used to determine "lifespan classes." Purchasers who wanted to monitor compliance would have to have (or get access to) those three test machines and an aging oven, along with someone who knows how to operate them, in order to get the test figures to insert into the formula. After delivering the order, the seller would have to wait till the aging results were in before his shipment could be accepted. These complications would slow down the commercial transaction and add to the cost of both compliance and monitoring.

As an alternative, most monitoring for the consumers could be done ahead of time by some central agency, which could publish lists of qualifying papers at regular intervals. This is not likely to be done in the U.S., where central control is unpopular. Even it if were done, it would not enable the consumer to check up on individual shipments. Most purchasers would end up relying on suppliers' assurances that the shipment in question met the standard. The purchaser would be safe some of the time, but not all the time: institutional customers that do their own monitoring have found that a surprisingly high percentage of all shipments do not meet specs even when those specs are spelled out in a purchase order.

The Question of Journals

A couple of people mentioned the unsolved problem of journals and magazines, many of which are printed on lightweight coated (LCW) paper containing mechanical pulp. Most journal publishers are not likely to switch to higher-priced freesheet. A solution to this problem was mentioned by two participants: make LWC of alkaline carbonate-filled groundwood. This will probably happen anyway, because industry is going in that direction and has already had some success with alkaline groundwood in Europe. Cultural institutions know that the life of journals and newspapers can be extended by deacidification. It would be cheaper for them if groundwood paper could be deacidified during the manufacturing process, in effect, by adding carbonate as a filler.

Needed Research

An imposing list of permanence-related topics was compiled by the small discussion groups. Accelerated aging methods, and correlation of accelerated aging with natural aging, were mentioned frequently in discussions of the larger group. In fact, two of the eight small discussion groups were on this very topic. The other groups were:

The reports of the small groups were presented on the second and third days. (Transcripts of the report notes were later mailed to participants.)

The day following the workshop, a four-member task group stayed on and drafted a "Request for Research Proposals." They were James Reilly of the Image Permanence Institute, Chandru Shahani of the Library of Congress, Jouko Laamanen of KCL in Finland, and Bruce Arnold, ViceChairman of Committee D 6.50. (The sponsors were later asked for their input on the document, before making it public.)

It is expected that research will begin in 1995.

[This report is an edited version of "Lignin on Trial," Abbey Newsletter, July 1994, p. 25. It will be continued in a future issue, covering the papers given at the workshop and providing more details on research and testing.]

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