Before you go out and buy reams of paper or a bound book of blank pages for your journal, try this inexpensive and relatively quick experiment to evaluate paper quality: Collect the morning paper from your front step (or neighbor’s bushes, as the case may be), and after you’ve read it, leave a page sitting in direct sunlight. By dinner time, that page will already be yellowing, and you will have found that not all paper is meant to last.
Up until the mid 1800s, paper was composed of cellulose fiber derived from old rags and linen, and bleached with lime, which is highly alkaline. The lime also served as a buffering agent, protecting the paper from external acid introduction, such as handling by human hands. But by the Civil War, the demand for paper outstripped the supply of linen and rags, and new ingredients for paper-making had to be found.
The main ingredient in most modern paper is wood pulp, and the processes developed for bleaching, sizing (which waterproofs the paper to some extent to keep ink from bleeding) and finishing this paper involves a lot of highly acidic chemicals, which cause the paper to break down over time. This is why all those paperback books from your childhood are now falling apart. And the more you handled them; the more acid you introduced through the oils in your skin, further causing deterioration.
The Right Stuff
The main thing to look for when selecting paper for your journal is acid-free paper. Fifteen years ago, it was hard to find high-quality acid-free writing paper, but now almost every decent bookstore carries at least a few bound blank books of acid-free pages. These may cost a few dollars more than the acidic variety, but if you want people to be able to read your words in the future, it’s worth the investment. Plus, to further assuage your guilt over spending the extra money, the processes used in producing acid-free paper are more environmentally friendly. Manufacturing acid-free paper produces fewer run-off contaminants, and the product usually includes some recycled content.
If you prefer to write at your computer, acid-free printer paper is also available. But remember to print your pages from time to time. After all, in a few more years, floppy disks may be museum pieces!
Even if the paper you’re using is of the best quality, acid and other destructive factors can be introduced inadvertently. Glue, binding cloth, staples and threads commonly used to hold books together can have disastrous effects on the longevity of your work. While there may not be too much you can do about these bad influences, here are some things you can easily avoid:
Clippings: Don’t introduce newspaper clippings into your journal pages, as the acid will migrate from the low-quality newsprint to your relatively expensive, high-quality pages, making it money ill-spent.
Accessories: Avoid using paper clips, rubber bands and self-adhesive notes as they can cause permanent damage to your pages. Even most inks can introduce harmful acid onto your paper, although for a small investment, you can buy ballpoint pens with acid-free inks. For information on archival-quality adhesives, see our story on scrapbooking.
Other Detriments: Light (especially UV), animals (including mice, cockroaches, silverfish, bookworms and your dog), food and drink, heat above 70 degrees (60 is safer, but rather limiting), and humidity are all environmental factors destructive to paper.
If your goal is to make your writing last, even the right combination of paper, binding materials and ink alone won’t preserve your journal for future generations. The manner in which you treat your journal also contributes to its longevity. Don’t fold the page corners over to mark your place and don’t use the book as a coaster for your morning coffee. Don’t write in the bathtub (at least, don’t write in the journal you want to save in the bathtub).
Finally, once you’ve completed a volume, store it in a cool, dark dry place that is easy to clean… and (we hate to say it) clean there once in awhile. The best way to store your completed volumes is to keep them in archival quality (acid-free) boxes. Don’t keep them in wooden chests as the chests can become infested, or in metal boxes, unless they’re specially made for archival storage, as the boxes may corrode.
Acid-free journals and paper are easy to find nowadays. We’ve listed a few here that have a myriad of cover options to choose from. Many other companies also produce quality journals—check the inside cover of your favorite journal design at a bookstore to see if it’s acid-free.
Artemis: Tree-free, acid-free pages
Chronicle Books: Acid-free pages
Michael Roger Press: Acid-free recycled and water-resistant pages (great for the bathtub water!)
Running Rhino: 100% recycled acid-free pages
Acid-Free Printer Paper
Great White, Hammermill and Serox are among the paper companies that produce acid-free paper for computer printers. Check the end of the ream you’re considering buying?if it’s acid-free, the information will be clearly listed.
Megan Fitzpatrick is an English instructor, advertising copywriter and inveterate journal-keeper whose earliest specimen is almost as old as she is (and in equally poor condition).