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Archives and Special Collections: Handling Materials


Special Collections materials are often rare and fragile due to their age. Archives are unpublished, unique material that is irreplaceable. Materials like these need special care when handling in order to preserve them for the future.

Here we look at how to handle, hold and carry Special Collections materials.



  • Keep your hands clean and dry - moisture can damage materials
  • Don't use alcohol hand gel, soap and water are best
  • No hand creams - grease can damage materials
  • No perfume - strong fragrances can cling to paper
  • Be careful with nail varnish - the colour can transfer to paper
  • Be mindful if wearing jewellery that could catch and tear materials

The working space

  • Make sure the working space is clean and tidy - no coffee stains, dirt or food and drink traces
  • Keep the space clutter free to minimise the risk of accidental damage - only bring what you will need to work with
  • No food, drink or chewing gum - take breaks away from the working area to avoid accidental spillage
  • Use a soft 2B pencil with a slightly blunt tip for note taking, pens should not be used near the materials. Don't use a rubber to rub out any accidental marks - this could cause more damage. You can also use a digital device for taking notes


  • Make a risk assessment before retrieving or using material to minimise the risk of accidental damage
  • Decide what supports may be needed for transporting the items
  • Use a  trolley to carry multiple items or large/heavy items 
  • Keep books flat if possible

Handling loose papers


  • Take care to replace documents into the correct files, in the correct order
  • Be aware that the humidity of fingers can cause ink to smudge - avoid touching text
  • Remember not to square papers on the table top - keep papers aligned as you turn them
  • Turn loose pages by holding opposite corners of the paper
  • Papers can usually rest flat on the tabletop without supports
  • Don't remove any paperclips from pages

Handling books


  • Hold and carry books from the fore edge, not the spine. The spine is most vulnerable to damage as it is the mechanical part of the book
  • If you take a book from the shelves grasp it mid-spine with the covers between thumb and fingers, avoiding gripping the spine. Support the book from underneath if it's heavy
  • If the book is shelved tightly between other books and you are unable to grip the cover, reach one hand behind the book and gently push the book forwards, grasping it with the other hand. Avoid pulling the book out by the top of the spine
  • Books will need to be supported by cushions before being opened. The level of support needed is assessed on a case by case basis and will vary depending on the size, weight and condition of the book
  • Visually asses the condition before opening the book - check how fragile the spine looks. If the book is tied together with cotton tape it is a good clue that the spine is damaged
  • Be aware of red rot in leather bound books, the powder can mark pages
  • Find a suitable size cushion to rest your book, use your hands to form a dip down the centre to rest the spine. Carefully open the book
  • Listen to the book - does it creak when you open it? The binding may be tight and you may not be able to open the pages fully
  • Most books won't open flat, adjust the height of the cushion supports to find an angle that avoids putting strain on the binding
  • Avoid touching the text - use the white spaces on the paper to turn pages
  • If pages are fragile or made of parchment use a bone file to carefully turn the pages instead of your fingers
  • If you need to mark a page use acid-free paper slips as bookmarks

Using weights


  • Weights can be used to hold materials in place where pages do not naturally lie open
  • Carefully rest snake weights over the corners of pages of books, only rest them on the white spaces of the page, avoiding any text
  • Be especially careful to avoid resting weights over illuminations or gold leaf 
  • Glass or soft weights can be used to hold loose papers flat
  • Avoid resting weights over any damaged or fragile areas

Maps and scrolls


  • Rolled items like maps will need to be unfurled carefully, two pairs of hands are useful for large items
  • Make sure you have plenty of space before you start - it can be difficult to know how large the item is going to be
  • Glass or soft weights are used to hold corners open and may be spaced along the edges to prevent the paper curling
  • Only unroll as much as you need to see at one time
  • Take care to align the edges when re-rolling

Handling photographs

  • Use gloves to handle photographs and negatives
  • Never touch the emulsion surface of the print as it is vulnerable to fingerprints, scratches and marks
  • Pick up photos from the edges
  • Don't remove photos from protective sleeves

Tape reels and cassettes


  • Handle tapes from the plastic case or spool
  • Never touch the brown magnetic tape
  • Keep tapes clear from magnetic fields e.g. mobile phones


  • As a general rule handle books/archives as little and as carefully as possible
  • Take responsibility for the items you are handling - if you notice issues do something about it or report it to staff
  • Ask for help or advise if you are unsure- we're happy to help
  • Remember not to lick your fingers when leafing through books and papers!
  • When you become absorbed in your work it is easy to forget handling techniques - be mindful not to lean on the papers or books or to read books on your lap instead of the table
  • Some of our materials may not look fragile or even very old but they could be irreplaceable - by following these handling guidelines you are helping us to preserve them for future researchers

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