Past Protection: Conservation at the Archives of Ontario

By Jenny Prior

Meet Shannon Coles, a conservator at the Archives of Ontario. Shannon’s been stabilizing archival records and preparing them for digitization and reproduction for our on-site World War I exhibit, Dear Sadie, launching this summer.

Q: Shannon, what led you to your unique and interesting occupation?

A: Going to museums as a kid always frustrated me because I wanted to touch everything! With my job, there are no barriers between the records and me.

Conservation work is an eclectic mix of science, art, and history, and these disciplines have always interested me. You need to study chemistry to understand how and why the materials degrade. The artistic elements are fine-hand skills and an appreciation for the documents themselves. And of course being fascinated by history doesn’t hurt.

Shannon getting up close and personal with archival records. Photo credit: James Bowers .

Shannon getting up close and personal with archival records. Photo credit: James Bowers.

Q: How do you decide if a record can be displayed?   

A: In the Archives of Ontario’s preservation department, we’re responsible for the long-term physical protection of all the archival materials. Exhibiting records speeds up chemical reactions, which in turn accelerates deterioration.

With this is mind, the first thing we do is inspect the record. How vulnerable is it? What light exposure can it take? Can we effectively control temperature and humidity to prevent damage?

Then there’s the cosmetic stuff. Is there stain reduction, flattening, or tear repair involved, and is it extensive?

Once we assess these factors, we give a recommendation on whether display is an option. Sometimes records just can’t be showcased. For example, blueprints are really light-sensitive and would fade away if we put them in an exhibit.

With our WWI exhibit, it’s a matter of the timeline. The exhibit will be up for nearly a year and a half. Too much fading will happen, even if we put environmentally protective measures in place. We have to balance access with our number one priority, which is protection. So we’re digitizing the records and putting in reproductions.

Q: What records are you treating for the WWI exhibit? 

A: Five records have needed treatment so far – either flattening or elastic removal – before they could be digitized and reproduced. Three of them are correspondence from during the war and shortly after. One is a 1918 certificate appointing a promotion in the Army Medical Corp. And one is the draft text for a memorial plaque.

One big benefit to using reproductions is that the records are still available to researchers. When they’re displayed, they’re out of circulation.

Having digitized copies is also a plus because they can be used in special ways for presentation – like enlarging them to show a specific angle or detail.

Q: Can you take us through a flattening treatment?

A: When a document is folded up, the paper fibres get brittle and stuck over time. Trying to open it in this condition risks breaking the fibres and causing tears.

We make the fibres supple again by introducing a high level of humidity in a closed container. This makes the fibres flexible so we can open the document without damage. It typically takes about six to eight hours to do this.

Then we put the document under a lot of pressure, using a thick and absorbent paper that’s usually made of cotton, called blotting paper. It draws out the document’s moisture, and the weight helps re-train the fibres to lay flat.

Taking on some flattening…. Photo credit: James Bowers.

Taking on some flattening…. Photo credit: James Bowers.

Q: And what about elastic band problems?

A: Elastic bands are a curse on archives everywhere!

New elastics are stretchy and come off easily. But over time they get hard, brittle and sticky as they degrade, getting fused to the paper and staining it. They also stop being effective. So they’re pretty much useless as well as harming the document.

With the WWI exhibit materials, we started our remedy by picking off the loose, crumbly elastic bits with the tip of a scalpel. For the really stuck-on remnants we used the chemical Heptane, which swells the rubber and loosens the bond so you can swab it off.


We hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the world of archival conservation! In future posts, we’ll be talking about designing and mounting our on-site WWI exhibit, as well as our progress on the travelling version.

If you haven’t already, please check out the online exhibit. It’s been getting great attention since the February launch, which has led to some fascinating discoveries.

Jenny Prior oversees the Archives of Ontario’s popular travelling exhibits program.

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