December 02, 2007

When "acid free" isn't actually acid free: Can you trust archival supplies to be safe?

Photo by Joe Nangle

I've been having some trust issues lately.

There's a popular archival supplier whose products seem to be slipping in quality. Then they sent out an email with claims about CD longevity that were misleading at best, utterly false at worst.

This is a HUGE dilemma for me. If I can't trust the quality of their products, I can't recommend them to my readers. And I know people come here to find reliable information about supplies. (Note: The photo storage boxes for sale in the left column are NOT from this manufacturer.)

I'm digging and doing some research. I'll keep you posted about what I discover.

Anyhoo. When I started digging, I discovered Mark Welch's articles. Mark is a scrapbooker. He's also a skeptic. I like to think of him as The Skeptical Scrapbooker, but his pen name is actually the Scrapbook Critic.

How Reliable is the "Acid Free" Label?

Back in early 2006, Mark learned about pH pens for the first time. Test papers for acid content in the comfort of your own home? What a great idea!

Then he visited several craft and scrapbook stores to purchase one so he could test scrapbooking paper. Turns out, scrapbook stores don't actually sell pH testing pens. Interesting, wouldn't you say? So Mark made several purchases online.

In an odd twist, it turns out some of the pens didn't work at all. See Mark's articles (links below) for more details on why certain pens failed.

Way more shocking, however, was the discovery that some papers sold at scrapbooking stores and via home sales were, in fact, acidic. All of those had been clearly marked as acid free, buffered and/or lignin free. Yeowch!

Acid Free Is Not Enough

Paper needs to be lignin free as well. Lignins are a by-product of the paper making process. It's the lignins that turn non-acidic paper to acidic. In other words, something that is acid free today will become acidic over time if the lignins have not been removed.

Benefit of the Doubt

As for me, I am so obsessed with the independent Photographic Activity Test (PAT) that I've always given manufacturers the benefit of the doubt on the "acid free" label. I figured since it was so easy to test at home, a manufacturer would be crazy to pass something acidic as acid free.

Turns out, I was wrong.

Check out Mark's articles for more details -- including the names of manufacturers he no longer trusts:

[Mark's] conclusion is that scrapbookers should buy a pH pen and test each paper they use.

  • This is not especially cumbersome: it takes just seconds to distress the back of a page and mark it with a pH pen.
  • Scrupulous retailers should be willing to do this at the checkout stand while the customer watches.
  • It is not enough to test just one paper from a manufacturer, because paper composition and pH levels may change from one print run to the next.
  • Unfortunately, a pH pen will not indicate a problem if paper is currently pH neutral, yet contains materials (such as lignins) which will degrade into acids in the future.

Thinking about buying your own pen?
Check out the selection of pH pens at Amazon. And when you purchase anything from Amazon via that link (regardless of what it is) it's like leaving a tip for yours truly, without having to fork over any extra money.