Rusted through – iron gall ink and metal fasteners

It’s our 3rd week of our virtual tour of the Preservation lab here at QSA. We’ve covered the effect of dry conditions on paper, we’ve looked at mouldy records, and we’ve come unstuck from our sticky tape situation. Today we’re looking a couple of types of rust…

If you’ve missed previous installments of the tour, catch-up on what we covered so far.

Metal fasteners

We’ve talked about metal fasteners and paperclips and the like and what they can do to records before in an early edition of QCN, but today we’re going to look at it a bit more.

It’s often been referred to as the staple for people with commitment issues but the seemingly useful paperclip, and its cousins the bulldog clip, the split pin and the rest of the family of metal file fasteners, can have devastating effects on your records over time.

They might be meant to secure and maintain, but most metal fasteners will simply corrode, weaken the paper around them and eventually tear through completely, leaving red rust particles and stains in their wake … and ultimately loose, damaged paper that isn’t kept together at all like you hoped.

Image of damage caused to paper from rusting metal fasteners and clips

They might be useful to you, but we at QSA definitely don’t want them. If and when you transfer any records to us, they go through a whole heap of checks, including for anything that might damage the records or the collection, or people who handle them, including the public –the presence of damaging metal is high on our list.

If we can, we remove these fasteners (and we have the bin to prove it).

Image of 1 years worth of metal fasteners removed from records transferred to QSA

The crazy thing is, this is just a year’s worth of fasteners we’ve removed.

There is, however, a happy ending after all in this sad tale. All of these pesky metal fasteners can be replaced with something a little more friendly… aka archival alternative fasteners.

Usually we replace any metal fasteners with Pastiklips®, Ty-tites, and polypropylene sleeves or archival paper wraps and folders for larger quantities.

Image of archival quality ties and paper clips

And the best thing is you can use these too… before the metal fasteners become a problem. You can find this handy and safe fasteners at most reputable stationers and archival suppliers. Please remember, if you put it in, we’ll take it out

Iron gall ink

Iron gall in is really interesting, has been around for ages and ages (like 1st Century CE), and is found in most libraries, archives and museums around the world. It’s also very damaging.

Iron gall ink is made from the ground up galls that have been harvested from oak trees plus some other really nasty things (from an archival preservation perspective anyway).  When the tree is attacked by a wasp it forms the gall as an immune response.  They contain really high levels of tannins.  Once ground down, the galls are mixed with things like iron sulphate and a binder such as gum arabic. There are heaps of different recipes that have been used over time, but the end product is a concoction of iron, metal salts and acids ready to start some amazing chemical reactions within itself and the paper it ends up on.

Iron gall ink was used a lot because it was easy to make, it wasn’t water-soluble meaning it couldn’t be erased or removed easily… so in other words it was pretty permanent as a writing ink.

So why is this type of ink so damaging? The key word here is ‘iron’… well, we know what happens to iron when it reacts to air. Yup, rust. Rust is a chemical reaction that happens when the metal combines with oxygen, which is also what happens at a chemical level when things burn.  The ink literally burns through the paper. No surprise the ink goes a rusty brown colour.

As it burns through the paper it can produces a stunning ‘lacing’ effect where the middle of letters and flourishes pop out. Pretty, but not good for the document and legibility in the long term.  It’s a problem in museums and archives around the world.

Image of page with writing on both sides in iron gall ink and the damage caused
Image of register with damage to pages caused by iron gall ink and pests

The reaction happens from the time the ink is applied and is autocatalytic meaning it just continues under its own steam – forever.

So how do you stop it? Bad news people, you can’t, but you can slow it down with various climate controls. You must keep documents with iron gall ink dry and cool.  Water is the absolute enemy of iron gall ink.  Again, another reason why having specific storage conditions can go a long way towards preserving records.

Want to know what environmental conditions are the best for your records? Check out our advice on records storage standards and environmental conditions on the website.

More information

We’ve got one more week in our virtual tour of the preservation lab, and we’ve saved the best for last so tune in next week to find out what it is.

In the meantime, if you want more information on storing, protecting and caring for records – both digital and physical – particularly more information on paper selection and appropriate materials, check out our advice on the website.

Remember, you can contact us via email, telephone (3037 6630), Records Connect and on the website.

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