Animal Skins and Coated Paper: A World of Difference

The Original Writing Materials

Parchment is animal skin (such as sheep, goat, cow, hare, horse, or deer) specially prepared to be used as a writing material.


Parchment made from sheep skin. Photo credit: Gavin Moorhead

Vellum is made specifically from the skin of a calf specially prepared to be used as a writing material or to create book covers. Using skins as a writing surface began as early as 400 BCE, though demand decreased in the 15th century when the production of paper gained popularity.


Vellum. Photo credit: Gavin Moorhead

Both parchment and vellum are made by soaking the skins in lime and water for a week and a half while stirring the vat a few times a day. The skins are removed from the vat and placed fur side up on a convex surface, and the fur is then scraped off. The skins are then stretched on a wooden frame, and while wet, are scraped with a knife a second time. Once dry, the skins may be made smooth by scraping with a pumice stone and dusted with chalk powder. Finally they are cut out of their frames and are trimmed and shaped.

How can we tell the difference between vellum and parchment?

Vellum typically has a finer grain, fewer flaws, and fewer colour variations. As parchment is usually created from the skins of full-grown animals, the grain is more pronounced due to larger hair follicles and there may also be evidence of old scars and discolouration.

Coated Paper

There are many types of coated paper, which include clay coatings and polymer coatings. Polymer coatings are used to achieve physical characteristics, water resistance, and to prevent ink from feathering.

Some polymer coatings may have a sheen, or cause the paper to be stiff and inflexible, producing similar qualities to parchment and vellum. This can make identification difficult.

How can we tell the difference between animal skin and coated paper?

Is there a grain or are hair follicles visible? If so, it is vellum or parchment.

Is there a variation in colour? If there is, it is supporting evidence that it is animal skin, though a variation in colour alone is not strong enough evidence to determine that it is not coated paper.

Can it be flexed easily? Vellum and parchment are stiffer than coated paper.

Is there a variation in opacity? A variation in opacity, but not in thickness, is evidence that it may be animal skin.

Are there creases or tears? If so, place a magnification loupe along one edge and look for paper fibres. Animal skin will not have visible fibres.

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Resources for Archivists

The Lead Team receives a variety of questions about a multitude of topics. Here are a few helpful resources we have found (or created!) while assisting our members.


Film Care by the Image Permanence Institute

This website is a great resource – it provides guidelines for working with all film formats and types. It covers storage, including how to implement low temperature storage, charts mapping degradation when film is removed from cold storage and using A-D strips. One of the most useful (and exciting!) resources on this website is the storage calculator for colour and acetate films. Input the temperature and relative humidity of the desired storage space to calculate the longevity of the film under the specified storage conditions.


Free Resources by the Northeast Document Conservation Center

The NEDCC offers many free online resources about a variety of subjects, such as preservation and disaster preparedness and recovery. They also offer a free online disaster planning template called dPlan.


Flood Advisory Programme by the Archives Society of Alberta

The Flood Advisory Programme’s website offers a variety of resources focused on disaster preparedness and recovery, such as how-to videos, emergency response resources, extreme weather alerts, recommended disaster response kit list, and staff training scenarios.


Salvage Operations for Water Damaged Archives Collections: A Second Glance by Betty Walsh

This document is a great resource to review general guidelines to follow in the event of a disaster. Sections include general best practices, guidelines for packing, recovery methods and rehabilitation.


Orphan Works: Statement of Best Practices by the Society of American Archivists

This report is a summary of recommended best practices when handling orphan works. Sections include principles, search strategies, documentation, and resources.


Bill C-61 – Act to Amend the Copyright Act

No one wants to read it, but it is necessary for understanding Canadian copyright.
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Sticky Situation: Introduction to Adhesives and Glue

What is glue?

Glue is a sticky all-natural product created by boiling parts of animals to make a brown, translucent, and viscous substance. Protein colloids is extracted from the skin and bones of animals through a boiling process that causes hydrolysis to the collagen. Rabbit-skin glue and Russian Sturgeon glue (Isinglass) is still used today by paintings conservators and gilders.

Mucilage, created by plants, can also be boiled to create a sticky product. Mucilage is used by plants to assist with the storage of water and food, seed germination and to thicken cell membranes.


Photo credit: Boston Public Library

How do you know if glue is on your record?

The presence of glue exhibits physical traits such as penetrating through paper. It is inflexible, hard, and shiny, with a brown tint. Typically it is found on items from the 1800s – 1950s, though it is still available today for purchase at art and hardware stores. Glue is often found on envelopes, framed items, and scrapbooks from 1950 and earlier.

What is adhesive?

Adhesive is a synthetic product. There are many different types, some of which include thermoset adhesives, thermoplastic adhesives, and pressure-sensitive adhesives, though there are many others. Not all adhesives are made equal. Some are chemically and physically stable, while others degrade quickly. When adhesives degrade they first become sticky and gooey, then they begin to lose their adhesive properties and harden, finally they harden completely and the paper will often detach.


Photo credit: Plaisanter

How do you know if adhesive is on your record?

If the record has pressure sensitive tape, is framed or matted, and is from 1960 or later, it is likely that there is adhesive present. Adhesive is hard and shiny, can cause yellow or brown staining, and may cause the paper to appear translucent. Many adhesives cause paper fibres to weaken leading to tearing and loss of media. It is recommended to have a paper conservator treat the item to remove as much adhesive as possible, and to improve the stability and aesthetic of the record.
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These are a few of our favourite things…

Are you interested in disaster preparedness resources and tools? Are you writing a disaster plan or perhaps updating your institution’s disaster plan? Are you looking for some resources to help you prepare for a disaster? Here are a few of our favourite disaster preparedness resources and supplies!


Emergency Planning and Response for Libraries, Archives and Museums by Emma Dadson.

This book is a great introduction to emergency planning. It covers a range of topics, such as starting a plan, roles and responsibilities, incident control, salvage strategies and business continuity planning, among others. It also offers a variety of case studies to learn from.

An Ounce of Prevention: Integrated Disaster Planning for Archives, Libraries, and Record Centres by Joanna Wellheiser and Jude Scott.

This book is an extremely detailed resource on disaster preparedness and recovery. It discusses how to plan for a disaster and focuses on how to salvage collections if they are negatively affected. There are also lists of suppliers and service providers across Canada for disaster related supplies and restoration services.


Photo credit: Amanda Oliver

Disaster Kit Supplies

Absorene dirt erasers

These erasers work wonders on mould and soot. It is a great item to keep in your disaster kit in case of a mould outbreak or fire.

Waterproof notepads

Documentation is one of the most important parts of disaster recovery. Waterproof notepads are great to have on-hand in case of rain or moisture – he paper stays dry and your notes remain legible!

Absorbent socks

Absorbent socks are a great item to keep in your disaster kit. We previously wrote a blog post about them, and we still can’t get enough of them! They are perfect in the event of a small leak. Place the sock around the leak to prevent the water from spreading while you turn off the water source.

Online Resources

Salvage at a Glance by Betty Walsh:

This is a great resource that outlines how to handle water affected media. It discusses media types, priorities, handling precautions, packing methods and drying methods.

Emergency Management by the Northeast Document Conservation Center:,-biological-agents,-theft,-and-vandalism

The Northeast Document Conservation Centre’s website is an invaluable resource for all things conservation. In regards to disaster management, they offer detailed leaflets on disaster planning, including a worksheet for creating a plan, emergency management bibliography, salvage of books, paper, and photographs, integrated pest management, and freezing and drying records.

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Project by the Numbers (3)

ASA’s Flood Advisory Programme is one and a half years into its project. This is some of the work we have completed so far:

  • Travelled 34 294 kilometres
  • Treated 2149 items
  • Placed 107 supply orders
  • Wrote 54 condition reports
  • Conducted 42 site assessments
  • Created 41 work plans
  • Posted 33 blog entries
  • Created 8 online resources (ASA’s Flood Assistance Page)
  • Filmed 6 how-to videos
  • Hired 6 contractors to complete work at heavily impacted sites
  • Wrote 6 board reports
  • Wrote 6 newsletter articles
  • Wrote 6 disaster plans
  • Edited 5 disaster plans

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Collaborating with Alberta’s Institutions

The Lead Team has been working on the recovery of the Museum of the Highwood’s flood damaged archival collection for the past twelve months. In February 2015, the Lead Conservator began conservation treatment on the photographic material at the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Space and supplies were kindly donated by the conservator, Alison Freake, at the PAA.

ASA’s contract book conservator, Lisa Isley of In a Bind, also began treatment in February 2015 on flood damaged bound material from the Museum of the Highwood’s archival collection. The paper conservator at the Glenbow Museum, Lee Churchill, generously supplied space in the paper lab and a freezer for Lisa to store and triage items for treatment.

In August 2015, the Lead Team searched for an available lab in Edmonton for their contract paper conservator, Jayme Vallieres, to work. A space was needed where she could clean flood damaged textblocks and flatworks. After contacting MacEwan University’s Department of Physical Sciences they were able to secure a temporary lab space in a research lab.


Photo credit: Kevin M. Klerks

Fume hoods and chemicals were made available for Jayme to use while completing treatments. The Lead Team presented a short PowerPoint to staff at MacEwan University on Tuesday, November 10th 2015, regarding the roles of an archivist and a conservator, and their work for the Flood Advisory Programme.

The Lead Team would like to extend their appreciation to the Provincial Archives of Alberta, Glenbow Museum, and MacEwan University for all of their generosity.
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Tips for Writing a Disaster Plan

Writing a disaster plan for your institution can seem like an onerous task, but it doesn’t have to be! Here are a few tips to help write a disaster plan.

1. Don’t do it alone

Choose a variety of people within your organization to be a part of the writing process. Include individuals from different departments, with different backgrounds and different levels of experience. Meet regularly to create the best plan possible. Share drafts with staff members to see if there is anything you have missed and work through mock-disaster scenarios to see if the plan you create works in practice. Also, think about who will review and update the plan in the future and who will approve these changes. Your staff will feel more connected with and responsible for the disaster plan if they are involved in the writing and testing process.

2. Who are you going to call?

Create a list of staff to call during a disaster. Include alternate phone numbers to reach people. Every staff member should have a role assigned in the disaster plan, such as Response Lead and Collections Lead, and clearly identified responsibilities and tasks for each role. Include alternate staff for each position in case staff members are not available to assist.

3. Map it!

Include a floor plan within your disaster plan. Identify the location of your vital records, exits, water shut offs, breaker boxes, fire extinguishers, sprinklers, first aid kits, shelving units, disaster recovery supplies and any other supplies or pieces of equipment you think would be helpful. A map may help you evacuate records or assist first responders unfamiliar with your institution.


Photo credit: Mike Carney

4. Practice makes perfect

Include a section describing how you will train staff on using your disaster plan. How will you ensure that all staff have read the plan (consider having a sheet that all staff sign when they have read the plan)? What type of training will you offer? How often will this training occur? ASA recommends that all staff read through the plan at least once a year and to annually exercise a mock-disaster scenario to practice the plan.

5. Supplies

Create a list of all supplies you have onsite that can be helpful during and recovering from a disaster. This may include archival supplies, rehousing supplies and cleaning supplies, among others. Identify the location of all of the supplies in your plan so staff can find them quickly. Include the contact information for companies that offer equipment and supplies that you need but do not have onsite, such as freezer trucks, wet-dry vacuums and blotting paper. It is important to organize your supplies and contacts before a disaster for ease of access and use.

We hope that these tips help you write your institution’s disaster plan!

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Tough Call: When to Call a Conservator

Conservation services are offered by trained professionals in the field of conservation of historic works, artistic works, and cultural property. Conservators specialize in one of three main branches: paper, paintings, and artifacts. Many institutions have conservators on staff, though private conservators and contractors can also be contacted to complete treatments and offer recommendations.

If you do not have a conservator on staff, you may be wondering when you would need to contact one for assistance.


Photo credit: IAEA Imagebank

Questions to ask before contacting a conservator:

  • Are there any trained staff members onsite that can assist?
  • Conservators can be costly. Is funding available within the budget to hire a conservator?
  • Does the item require treatment immediately to remain chemically and physically stable?
  • Does the collection contain a variety of mixed media (textiles, paintings, wood artifacts, and textual records)?

When should you contact a conservator?

  • If your collection is threatened by an environmental disaster
  • If items have been vandalized
  • If items are going on exhibit or display
  • If items of high priority require treatment for stabilization (historical value, informational value, legal value, evidential value, monetary value, intrinsic value)
  • If items require treatment prior to going on loan
  • If there is a suspected pest outbreak in the collection
  • If you are redesigning your archives’ collection space and require advice on storing items with unique housing requirements

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Fire can cause significant damage to an archival institution. Fire damage to archival records can come in many different forms, such has burnt records, smoke and soot damaged records, wet records caused by fire suppression efforts, heat affected records (brittleness) or a combination of some or all of the above. This blog post is specifically about soot.

What is soot? Soot is a black, chalky material made mostly of carbon particles which is produced after an incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. Coal and wool are examples of material that produce soot during the incomplete combustion process. Soot is abrasive and sticky. It is very difficult to remove all soot during clean up due to its sticky nature. It is extremely important to ensure you have clean hands and gloves while handling soot damaged records or while working in soot affected areas as you can very easily transfer soot from your hands/gloves to archival records. These particulates can soil and chemically damage archival records. It is best to remove soot as soon as possible.

Burnt book

Photo credit: Sarah Wynne

Do not remove soot from wet records as you could smudge the soot and push it further into the paper fibers. Safety dry your records before removing any soot. You may wish to vacuum freeze dry your records if you do not have time to dry them right away. This method of drying may also lift the soot to the surface of the record, which will help in removing the soot.

Carefully brush large pieces of soot off the paper with a boar bristle brush or with the nozzle of a HEPA vacuum. Do not use a soft bristle brush or nozzle as you may rub the soot into the paper fibers. To remove small soot particles, dab an Absorene dirt eraser over the affected material. Replace the eraser when it becomes soiled.

This is a great video from Heritage Preservation about removing soot from objects:

Remember: Always consult a conservator before cleaning any archival material affected by soot.

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The Right Way to Rehouse

Before beginning a rehousing project, it is important to determine what envelopes should be chosen for each item requiring rehousing.

When should polyester film encapsulation be used? Encapsulating is great for rehousing photographs and documents with many tears along the edges as it prevents direct handling of the record, it reduces the opportunity for further tearing. It is also water resistant, strong, flexible, smooth (it will not cause abrasions), and it is chemically and physically stable. There are, however, a few disadvantages to using polyester film encapsulation: it has static cling, it is relatively expensive, and it acts as a closed chamber containing off-gases.

Do not encapsulate:

  1. Blueprints, they off-gas ammonia
  2. Cellulose Nitrate Negatives, they off-gas nitrous oxide and nitrogen dioxide
  3. Cellulose Acetate Negatives, they off-gas acetic acid
  4. Fine Art on Paper with Friable Media (pastels, charcoal, etc.), the static cling can remove loose media

2013-C3, Blueprint. Photo credit: Tom Hart

If using paper envelopes or folders, when should unbuffered or buffered be used? Never used buffered envelopes or folders to rehouse blueprints or cyanotypes because the blue colour (Prussian blue) will begin to turn pink; the colour is dependent on the pH level.

Always contact a conservator prior to rehousing fine art on paper as certain colours may be affected by buffered material.

Use Buffered Material for:

  • Cellulose nitrate negatives
  • Cellulose acetate negatives
  • Yellowed documents
  • Documents with iron gall ink
  • Documents with adhesive or glue residue
  • Maps without blue media

Use Unbuffered Material for:

  • Blueprints
  • Cyanotypes
  • Vellum or parchment
  • Coloured photographs
  • Black and white photographs
  • Polyester negatives
  • Maps with blue media

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