Think for a moment about your very first journal. How's it holding up?
My first foray into personal writing was a comb-bound, fill-in-the-blanks "school years" journal. My mom bought it for me when I was 5. It had a colorful cardboard cover and pockets where you could keep important school papers. Each year, I dutifully pasted my school picture on the appropriate page and wrote in the spaces for my favorite subjects, hobbies and career ambitions, then filled the pocket with that grade's accomplishments.
Twenty years later, that chronicle of my youth is in pretty sad shape. The binding has flattened from years of being squished in the back of my closet. The covers are warped from the book's bulging pockets, and the pages are starting to tear away from the binding. I wrote most of the entries in pencil, so my grade-school handwriting has begun to rub away onto adjacent pages. It's the only one of my childhood journals I still have, and, unfortunately, it doesn't look like it's going to last much longer.
If I had written and stored that journal a little differently, it'd undoubtedly be in healthier condition. Of course, you can't really blame me for not knowing better—I was only 5, after all. But adult journalers are prone to preservation mistakes, too.
Maybe you haven't given your journal's longevity a lot of thought, or figured you didn't have any reason to worry. You're not writing in some flimsy keepsake journal. Besides, books and papers can last practically forever, right? Just check out the spate of 100-year-old diaries for sale on eBay. But modern books and papers are known to deteriorate much faster than their precursors. Use and abuse speed up the process. You may have already shortened your journal's lifespan.
Even if your musings are strictly private, you want to be able to look back on them later. If you're keeping a journal for someone else—a pregnancy or life-story journal, for instance—proper preservation is even more crucial. Those of you who've plugged in to computer journaling need to ensure your personal writing outlasts your personal computer (or dot-com downfalls). Luckily, you can take steps to maximize your existing journal's longevity and to create new, longer-lasting journals. And it doesn't take a lot of effort or expense, whether you're recording your thoughts with pen and paper or bits and bytes.
The Weakest Links
Paper just isn't as sturdy as it used to be. As The Library of Congress' The Deterioration and Preservation of Paper brochure (lcweb.loc.gov/preserv/deterioratebrochure.html) notes: "It is often true that the older a book or manuscript is the better it survives. Paper-based materials that are 150 years old are in many cases in better shape than others that are less than 50." Why?
It's partly composition. Early paper was crafted from cotton and linen rags, while the mass-produced paper we use today comes from wood pulp. As paper ages, its fibers get shorter and weaker. The cellulose fibers in wood-based paper are naturally shorter than cotton fibers, so they decline faster.
Acids make wood-paper fibers degrade even quicker—and they come from several sources, including the cellulose itself. Another culprit is "size," an agent that keeps ink from feathering on the page. Paper can also absorb acids from its surroundings.
That's where environment comes in. Pollutants tend to be acidic—just think how easily newsprint becomes discolored and brittle, even when it's not in direct sunlight. Light, of course, is an environmental enemy, as is humidity, which causes books to warp and fade. These nemeses can do a number on ink, too, making your words run or disappear. Add extreme temperatures, and it just aggravates the situation: For example, mold starts growing on paper faster when it's humid and hot.
What's In Store
Your favorite journal probably isn't doomed to my grade-school journal's fate, though. You can prolong its life dramatically just by the way you store it.
First, keep your journals in a preservation-friendly environment. That means no damp basements or stuffy attics—books need enough circulation to avoid collecting dust and condensation. Ultimately, what's comfortable for you is probably comfortable for your journals; the room should be about 70 degrees and have less than 50 percent humidity. Keep journals away from sources of heat, such as hot-air registers, radiators and fireplaces, as well as windowsills, where they're vulnerable to sunlight, moisture and temperature fluctuations. Likewise, don't put your bookshelves on outside walls.
The way you shelve your journals can either help or hurt them. Cramming them in the back of a crowded closet like I did obviously isn't a good idea. Stashing them in a shoebox under your bed isn't ideal, either. (How often do you clean there?) To adequately support the binding, you should shelve your journals vertically between bookends or other similar-sized books. Allowing them to lean puts stress on the binding. And leave space in front of and behind the books to keep air flowing.
You may also want to use preservation storage boxes to prevent—or at least slow down—deterioration from acids. These boxes are made of alkaline cardboard, which serves as a "buffer" against acidity (see Longevity Lingo box). You can get storage boxes from the archival-product suppliers on Page 31. Pick a box that will fit the book snugly. Store computer printouts in flat document boxes, such as the ones from Hollinger. You could even use archival-safe materials to decorate a box if you want to give it personality.
If you feel your journals are in danger or you want to be extra safe, you can treat the pages with a deacidification spray, such as Preservation Technologies' Archival Mist (www.ptlp.com, 800/416-2665). This won't erase the damage that's already been done, but it will stop any further deterioration. Such sprays are pricey—about $40 per 5-ounce bottle—so you'll probably want to use them on only your most beloved journals.
Safe at First
Proper storage helps stave off further damage. Ultimately, though, your journal's fate rests on a Darwinian principle of preservation: Only the strong will survive. A flimsy, cheaply made notebook obviously won't age as gracefully as a stitched, hardbound volume. So the best way to make sure your journals will last is use materials that will stand the test of time.
These days, finding those materials is easy. The growing popularity of family history and scrapbooking has fueled demand for archival-quality products, including journaling tools. You'll find "archival-safe" products everywhere from Wal-Mart to the Web, but be forewarned: No strict standards govern use of archival terms in labeling, so try to stick with reputable manufacturers (see suppliers listed on Page 31.)
Rule No. 1 when you're journal shopping: Acid-free is key. So, start by choosing a journal with acid-free paper. Pay attention to the paper's feel, too: Heavier, higher quality papers indicate longevity—the longer fibers will break down more slowly. Sewn bindings are generally strongest, but be careful how you bend the book to write in it—stretching can damage. University Products makes hardbound journals that are bound so they open flat for writing.
Once you've got an acid-free journal, take care to keep it that way. Paper can absorb acids from its environment through acid migration. So if you introduce another acidic material into your journal, those acids will slowly make their way into the once-safe paper and begin to degrade it. Avoid stashing other scraps of paper in the book (unless they're acid-free). If you decorate your journal, use acid-free supplies.
That includes the pens you use to write in your journal. Plain old Bics won't do the trick—they aren't acid-free, and they're prone to fading and smudging. You want ink that will stay on the page permanently; after all, it doesn't matter how long the journal itself lasts if you can't read what you've written. Your best choice is to look for pens with pigment ink that is permanent, waterproof and resistant to chemicals and extreme temperatures.
Many pigment-ink pens are made for arts, crafts and scrapbooking, which is a plus: They're often more stylish and fun than run-of-the-mill ballpoints. Gel pens such as Sakura's popular GellyRoll are a great choice for journaling. Their pigment ink flows evenly across the page, and they come in all sorts of colors and funky variations—metallic, glitter, scented. You'll also find fine-point markerlike styles, such as Sakura's Pigma Micron and EK Success' Zig Millennium pens.
Get the Picture?
Your journal might seem a natural place to stash away photos, pressed flowers and other keepsakes. But that's not a preservation-savvy practice. Besides the extra objects adding stress to the binding, plants and papers contain acids that will transfer to your journal pages. If you're set on keeping those mementos in your journal, put them in flat, attachable keepsake pockets such as 3L's Memorabilia Pockets (www.31.dk). Photos are OK to keep in a journal—if you store them safely in an acid-free tome. The risk here is to the photos as much as the paper. You don't want your pictures to come in contact with acidic materials that will degrade them, and you need to affix them correctly. They shouldn't rub against each other or slide around between the pages. And don't glue or tape photos so you can't remove them later. The best method is to attach them to a page with photo corners. See www.familytreemagazine.com/articles/dec 00/safescrap.html for more photo-safe scrapbooking techniques you can apply to your journals.
Plugged In to Preservation
The same principles apply to computer journaling. With bits and bytes, you're facing a different threat: A journal saved on a disk or CD will last only as long as there's technology to read it. A Web journal exists only as long as the service hosting it stays in business. As technology changes, your journal could be left behind in the cyber dust.
What's a tech-loving journaler to do? Abandon the idea of paperless personal writing, and start printing out hard copies of your entries. And that's where you weigh issues such as proper paper and ink. Upgrading to safer paper is easy: National office-supply chains carry reams of acid-free printer paper, and you won't pay much more than you would for standard copy paper. Staples and Office Max sell 20- to 24-pound acid-free paper for $4 to $5 per ream. Archival suppliers have better paper at still reasonable prices: Hollinger's archival bond paper is $11.95 per ream, while University Products offers reams of buffered paper for $13.70.
Toner's a trickier issue, but here's a rule of thumb: You'll get better longevity from a laser printer than an ink-jet. That's because laser printing bonds the toner to the paper, much like a photocopier. Get a laser printout wet, and you'll see little effect on the ink; do the same to an ink-jet printout, and you'll likely wind up with fuzzy, incomprehensible blobs.
Although printer manufacturers have developed new archival ink-jets and toners, more basic models still create printouts vulnerable to fading and smearing. If you feel your ink-jet printouts are suspect, make an archival photocopy on acid-free paper. Whether you're using a laser printer, ink-jet or photocopier, don't assume the toner is acid-free and archival—ask the manufacturer.
The National Archives recommends a "peel test" to check for colorfastness, which involves applying drafting tape to an image printed on archival paper. If any of the image transfers to the tape, the copy isn't really archival. (Full test instructions at www.nara.gov/arch/techninfo/reformat/tip5.html.)
You should also try to preserve the disks or CDs where you're storing your computer journals. The American Institute for Conservation's Electronic Media Group offers discussion and advice on preserving electronic formats at aic.stanford.edu/conspec/emg. Archival companies also manufacture protective boxes and sleeves just for electronic storage. Just in case, always create a backup, either a plain-text file of the entries you upload to a Web site or an extra floppy disk with copies of your journaling-software or word-processing file.
Computers can actually help preserve paper journals that are in really sorry shape—like mine. I'm planning to scan the pages of my old journal, so I'll still be able to laugh at my childhood scribblings once the book meets its demise. This time, though, you won't catch me cramming the printouts in the back of my closet.
This article appeared in the August 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.