Preservation – Parchment, Paper and Pixels

Last week the four Magna Carta documents dating from 1215 have been on display at the British Library and another copy from 1300 was found in a Kent archive. It is amazing to think that these documents have survived for 800 years. How have they survived this long? Would paper or digital records created today still be around in 2815?

Parchment is made from animal skin (sheepskin in the case of the Magna Carta documents). To make parchment, the skins were soaked in a bath of lime or sometimes urine for several days. They were then stretched over a frame while damp and the hair scraped away with a large knife. When they were dry they were treated with chalk or pumice and cut to size. You can often still see skin blemishes and hair follicles on bits of parchment. Parchment is very durable as long as it isn’t kept in excessively moist or very dry environments, and of course away from fire and water. Important documents like the Magna Carta were probably kept in a large locked chest, offering their own protected environments, helping to ensure their survival. It is also interesting to note that most of the records that have survived from before the 14th Century are important documents, such as charters and deeds proclaiming rights, and not something like a baron’s household accounts.

Paper has varying longevity depending on when it was produced. Early paper produced in the 13th and 14th Centuries was made of cotton or linen rags and tends to survive quite well. From the mid-19th Century paper began to be produced from wood pulp. The raw materials, processes and additives of wood pulp paper cause acid to form in it over time, turning it brown and making it become very brittle. Its survival depends on the quality of the paper and how it was produced.  This is why some 18th Century books look pristine, but a newspaper from the 1980s can have disintegrated into dust.

Digital records have the shortest lifespan, even though today they are probably the format in which most records are created. Digital records are subject to numerous threats such as obsolescence, decay or inadequate capture. Many digital records have already been lost even though they were barely a decade old. CDs and DVDs used for storage of digital records, also only have a life span of barely 10-20 years. Archivists are working hard to design systems and processes to ensure that born digital records are preserved complete for future generations, even if this has meant printing them out on paper sometimes!

Is the format of the record irrelevant? Could it be that records have survived because of their importance to the people at the time, rather than the fact they were on parchment? I don’t imagine the barons of the Magna Carta were particularly concerned whether it would still exist in 800 years. Even if recordkeepers work hard to preserve all the records in their care, from the documents of government to the diary of Joe Bloggs, will it be only certain records that stand the test of time?


‘Paper’ and ‘Parchment’ from Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library. Accessed 1 Feb 2015

The Deterioration and Preservation of Paper: Some Essential Facts, Library of Congress. Accessed 1 Feb 2015

Digital preservation: a time bomb for Digital Libraries, Margaret Hedstrom.  Accessed 1 Feb 2015

Parsimonious preservation: preventing pointless processes!, Tim Gollins.  Accessed 1 Feb 2015