The real deal vs. the microfilm reel

Access is a key part of Library and Archives Canada’s mandate. Staff strive to provide access to original material whenever possible, but what happens when material has been removed from circulation and you need to consult the original?

Screenshot of Library and Archives Canada’s internal Collection Management System highlighting a message stating “Please consult copies which exist for the material you are attempting to order. Refer to MIKAN for copy information.”

Screenshot of Library and Archives Canada’s internal Collection Management System

Material may be withdrawn from circulation for a variety of reasons such as:

  • Material has been copied and is available in another format (usually microfilm copies)
  • Material has been identified as requiring conservation treatment
  • Material is fragile or at risk of being damaged
  • Material is withdrawn for health reasons (e.g. the material is contaminated with mould)

When you request material that has been removed from circulation, a staff member from the consultation desk will contact a Collection Manager or Holdings Management Assistant and inform them that a researcher wishes to consult originals and provide the reason the researcher needs to view them.

Some of the common reasons for needing to consult originals are:

  • You need to view originals for litigation purposes
  • Microfilm copies are illegible
  • Microfilm copies are missing pages
  • Health reasons (e.g. the use of microfilm readers causes vertigo)

The Collection Manager or Holdings Management Assistant will assess the requested material and determine whether the material can safely travel to 395 Wellington for consultation.

An open container showing textual material ready to be assessed.

Textual material ready to be assessed.

Common reasons for refusing a request to view originals are:

  • Material is too fragile to transport from the storage facility
  • Material is restricted by law (you must first apply for access rights)
  • Material poses a health risk and must be treated first (e.g. mould)
  • Material has been requested for a loan or an exhibition

Additionally, the following material does not travel outside of the Preservation Centre:

  • Treaties
  • Pre-1899 atlases, early maps, oversized matted documents
  • Oil paintings, pastels, charcoal works, miniatures
  • Medals, globes
  • Glass plate negatives, large panoramas, cased photographic objects
  • Certain philatelic material

If the material is considered to be too fragile or exceptionally valuable, the Collection Manager will stipulate that supervised consultation is required.

Library and Archives Canada staff do their best to facilitate access but in some cases material simply cannot travel. When this happens, you have the option of setting up an appointment to view the originals at the Preservation Center in Gatineau under the supervision of a reference archivist and a member of the Holdings Management team.

More than just books

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) receives a wide range of published heritage material through legal deposit, such as books, periodicals, government publications, etc. Occasionally LAC receives multimedia kits that must be re-boxed by the Preservation Services Unit. Multimedia kits contain more than books, but all items still need to be stored together, as much as possible. A good example of a multimedia item would be an educational kit designed for use in schools. A kit may include bound textbooks, binders with loose-leaf pages, posters, pamphlets, CDs and DVDs. Older kits may include items such as cassette tapes, slides, video tapes, and film strips—the popular media used when the kit was published.

A custom-made container and spacers are constructed for each kit to keep the components together for research purposes and to secure the different-sized items in the box. The container also provides protection from environmental harm such as light or water damage.


A colour photograph showing a multimedia kit containing a variety of items spread across a worktable.

An example of the components of a multimedia educational kit.


A colour photograph of a custom container and a custom folder for a poster.

Sample of a custom folder for a poster and box created for a multimedia educational kit. All the items in the multimedia kit have their own space, making it ideal for access and preservation.

Large rolled posters are flattened, placed in a custom folder, and filed in a flat storage drawer. A separate box for CDs and DVDs is constructed and held in place with a custom spacer so that they don’t shift when the box is moved.

All materials used in the construction of these containers are archival quality so they are acid-free and meet strict standards for material composition and longevity.

This is another example of how the Collection Management Division ensures the preservation of collection items through the skills, craftsmanship, and dedication of its staff.

Preventive Care and Maintenance: Laura Secord and the Grassy Knoll

Chris Smith, Library and Archives Canada Collections Management Clerk, was recently assigned an interesting and challenging rehousing project. Chris found himself looking at a Laura Secord chocolate box filled with not sweets, but a tangled mess of Dictaphone belts: 27 in total.

Introduced by the Dictaphone Corporation in the 1940s, the Dictabelt was a voice recording system using a thin plastic belt. The Dictabelt Re-Recording Service describes how the recordings worked: audio could be impressed onto the belt utilizing a needle-type stylus to emboss or plough a groove into the soft plastic. They were predominately employed for business, medical and scientific recordings. After use, Dictabelts were usually stored flat in boxes or file folders. This caused creasing and damage to the recordings.

For the conspiracy theorists out there, certainly the most famous use of a Dictabelt was by the American House Select Committee on Assassinations, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Based on “acoustic evidence” supplied by a Dallas Police Department Dictabelt, the committee concluded that there were at least four shots fired in Dallas that fateful day, and that one of them came from the “grassy knoll.”

Following considerable research on Dictabelt preservation techniques and consultation with our audiovisual conservation experts, Chris began his rehousing process. He wrapped each belt around a piece of custom-cut acid-free board to reduce creasing. Chris then placed each wrapped belt in an envelope, built spacers, and rehoused all 27 belts. They now safely reside in an 18C and 40% relative humidity (RH) environment at our Preservation Centre.

A colour photograph shows how the Dictaphone belts were received, with rusty paper clips holding the paper captions to each belt. Below the belts are the archival supplies used: blue board and envelopes. The bottom left shows the blue board inside the belt and the paper caption affixed to the bottom of the board. Above are the items placed inside envelopes and the new container that they will now be stored in.

This photo demonstrates the steps required for properly housing Dictaphone belts for long-term preservation.

A colour photograph showing, on the right, the Laura Secord chocolate box that the material was original received in, and to the left, the new container the Dictaphone belts are stored in for the long-term preservation of this collection.

The Laura Secord box beside the new enclosure. Now the dictaphone belts will no longer be at risk.

The near-surgical precision in all this rehousing work is most impressive, and plays a vital role in our preservation activities. Well done, Chris!

A few of our favourite things

Collection Managers at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) frequently receive questions related to the preservation of a variety of objects. In addition, whenever we offer in-house training sessions to staff, we also like to include information about references and further reading.

We thought we’d share some of our go-to online resources, as it can be hard to sift through all the information out there. These, in our opinion, are trusted sources that keep up to date with changing information and best practices that reflect scientific developments. They generally include source references as well, such as suppliers and bibliographies.

Please note: Invasive treatment should not be attempted without conservation training in the relevant medium. While anyone who can wield a knife and a straightedge can successfully make protective enclosures, if actual repair work is called for, please consult a conservator.

These sites provide information on a variety of media. We recommend you consult the indexes to see if what you’re looking for is included.

Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI)

CCI’s site has preservation information on a variety of objects including books, paper, photos, musical instruments and outdoor art.

Centre de conservation du Québec (CCQ)

CCQ’s site hosts Preserv’Art, a database of acceptable materials. It is a great source of information about supplies that are safe to use with particular media/objects. Note also that it contains info about what is NOT safe, which can be very useful as well.

Northeast Document Conservation Centre (NEDCC)

NEDCC’s series of Preservation Leaflets is also an excellent source of information. These publications are continually reviewed and updated as necessary.

National Park Service (NPS)

The United States’ NPS has an extensive series of Conserve O Grams, which are excellent publications on a variety of topics. While geared more toward the museum professional, they can still be useful sources of information about a range of subjects such as protective enclosures. Of particular interest are the new Conserve O Grams on the creation, care and storage of digital materials.

Stabilizing the new books added to the Rare Book Collection

A collection of pre-1800 books were recently transferred to Library and Archives Canada’s Rare Books Collection. A census of the collection revealed that the majority of the books had various levels of leather deterioration. In some cases, the leather was cracked and flaking, and in other, more extreme cases, the leather was powdering and crumbling. This is an inherent and common issue seen in manufactured skins from this period. Leather deterioration takes place by two processes: Reaction of tannins used in leather manufacture to environmental pollutants (hydrolysis) and exposure of leather to light, heat and oxygen (oxidation). Both hydrolysis and oxidation result in the gradual disintegration of the leather fibre network and weaken its structural integrity. The by-product of leather disintegration is an acidic powder, often orange or red in colour. Not only does this deterioration cause an immediate threat to the individual book structure, but it also threatens the rest of the collection through the contamination of leather dust and particulate. In many cases, the leather leaves visible residue on surfaces and surrounding books. For these reasons, the conservators at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) developed and carried out a remedial treatment to stabilize the leather.

A colour photograph showing several books on a table. The book in the foreground has extremely deteriorated leather and the spine has separated from the front cover.

Deteriorated leather: The first step in the process was to assess the level of deterioration and carry out an initial surface cleaning of the books to remove as much leather dust as possible. This was carried out in the rare books vault, on all 500 books, using a gentle vacuum and small brush.

The most effective method of stabilizing deteriorated leather is through the use of a surface consolidant. A consolidant is a solution which is applied directly to the leather to seal the surface. Although it can’t stop or reverse the chemical instability in degraded leather, it creates a barrier that protects the leather from airborne pollutants and reduces the flaking and powdering. Handling affected leather books after surface consolidation is a much cleaner experience as well.


A series of tests were performed to determine the sensitivity of the leather to water and solvents. Based on these findings, we were able to reach a conclusion on the most suitable consolidant recipe to use.

Colour photograph showing a piece of paper that has been marked out into squares with leather samples in each square. Each square shows the pre- and post-shrink test samples.

The testing carried out was called Shrink Temperature Test, where small samples of leather removed from the books were heated in water until a reaction occurred. The lower the reaction temperature the less stable the leather. The tests concluded that some leathers were quite unstable and that they could be easily damaged by the application of consolidants containing water and solvents.

A collage of three colour photographs each showing a book with little white flags on it. The flags are located in the areas that were spot tested with the consolidants.

Spot testing: Four consolidant recipes were made up and tested on three volumes representing the identified species of leather found in the pre-1800 books, that of goat, sheep, and calf. The test relied on visual examination to determine the likelihood of discolouration by staining or residue deposit by the various surface consolidants.

The tests conclusively revealed that one particular consolidant exhibited no visible signs of staining or residue on the leather; Hydroxypropylcellulose dissolved in one solvent, then diluted in another. It was decided to use this recipe to treat the collection.

A colour photograph showing a woman holding a book in her gloved hands applying the consolidant with a fine brush under a fume hood.

Applying the consolidant under a fume hood.

The consolidant was applied to localized areas using a small brush. The treatment was carried out in a fume hood, due to the solvents used in the consolidant recipe. The books were then left to off-gas for 24 hours in the fume hood before being returned to permanent storage.

Now that the leather surface of the book has been stabilized, we can determine, with the help of the census information, what other, if any, treatments are necessary to make these books more resilient and available for future generations to access.

The Rare Book Collection: recent additions

A collection of 500 pre-1800 books were recently relocated to a permanent location in Library and Archives Canada’s rare books vault. The vault is equipped with optimal environmental conditions to ensure this special collection is properly preserved for generations to come. Prior to being transferred to Library and Archives Canada, the books were owned by the Library of Parliament. Most of this collection consists of books published in England or France, and many are multi-volume sets. The subject matter ranges from geography and history to theatre and essays.


Colour photograph showing rows of books on a shelf. All the books are flagged with a slip of paper with a call number on it.

The permanent location in the rare books vault.

About the Collection

The majority of the books are 18th-century hand bindings bound in full or partial leather. The collection also comprises some books made of paper, cloth or parchment. The books are decorated with intricate gold titling and tooling and are often accented with unique and stunning marbled papers, commonly used as the endpapers.

Colour photograph of an open book showing a sumptuous marble paper used for the end paper.

Marble paper detail.

Colour photograph collage of four beaver-stamp images showing the different stamp styles on the books.

The Library of Parliament “beaver” stamp on the spine of many of the books. The style and intricate details of the beaver changes over the years, but the familiar trademark remains easily identifiable.

The condition of the books

Before being added to the Rare Book Collection, factors such as moisture, temperature, light and dust contributed to the deterioration of many of the books. Although some books are in excellent condition, with the binding structures and text blocks intact, many are damaged and show signs of damage. Some items have suffered from water and fire damage, or contain traces of a pest infestation, while others are weakened and damaged due to centuries of physical use.

Red rot and leather deterioration

A large percentage of the collection (approximately 90%) suffers from various levels of leather deterioration. In some extreme cases, the type of damage is referred to by conservators as red rot. The deterioration of leather is a common issue in leather from this period as the tannins used in the manufacturing process contain chemicals that, over time, and in the presence of oxygen, undergo a chemical change that breaks down the leather molecules. This causes the leather to weaken, flake and powder.

Colour photograph of a gloved hand holding a book with the telltale signs of red rot. The glove and sleeve are covered in a fine reddish-brown coloured dust.

An example of red rot—the term describes the red-coloured powder that appears on the surface of badly deteriorated leather.

Next steps for this collection

So much can be learned from this collection of historical and beautiful books. Check back with us for the next blog posts on the physical inventory of this collection , which includes a detailed inventory of the state of the collection, the levels of conservation treatment required, the material composition of the books, type of decorations, etc. Also have a look at the following post, detailing what steps will be taken to preserve this fine collection.

Water in the stacks!

But it’s not what you’re thinking…

Recently, two copies of a publication in the Reserve (Rare Books) Collection were identified for rehousing. The piece is called Venise undersee.

When the objects were removed from their original silk fabric bag, it was discovered that they were made of metal and that they were corroding… yikes.

The items are part of Library and Archives Canada’s collection of artists’ books. A bronze representation of the globe, with braille text excerpts from a poem on the surface, they are about the size of a five-pin bowling ball. The globes were made in 1998 by Daniel Hogue in an edition of ten copies. Very nice pieces, but disconcerting to see the beginnings of corrosion on one, and quite a large spot on the other.

Colour photograph of a metal globe sitting on silk brocade. The patina of corrosion is clearly visible on the outside of the globe.

Hmm… corrosion. What’s happening here?

Our first thought was that after the construction of new containers, the items could be moved into a vault with a lower humidity setting at LAC’s Preservation Centre, watch for a while, and see if the corrosion continued.

But after checking the AMICUS record, it was discovered that changing the ambient humidity was not going to help… inside the bronze globes was water from the canals in Venice! Yes, give one of the globes a shake and you’ll hear water sloshing around.

You may be acquainted with the term “inherent vice,” and this is a perfect example. Something inherent, or part of the original, that can have a detrimental long-term effect on it. The effects of inherent vice can be slowed in some cases; for example, cooler storage conditions will slow acidic deterioration of paper. In this case however, without making a structural change to the object (that is, drilling a hole in it and draining the water), there is really nothing that can be done to halt the damage.

Just to make things interesting, the artist’s intent is an important consideration in making decisions about these objects. Is the corrosion damage what the artist intended? Will the artist be upset with what is happening to the works? To find out, the artist was contacted, and it was determined that leaving the water to do its thing was the preferred course of action. Just as the water is slowly eroding structures in Venice, so it will slowly erode these works.

Colour photograph showing the bronze globe in a padded container with the silk brocade wrapping on the right. There is a layer of polyester film under the metal object to isolate any leaking water.

All ready to sit and let time do what it will—the item is rehoused.

And, because you’ll ask, the amount of water inside is not a concern in terms of a leak that could damage other items in the collection. The quantity of water is small, and would most likely be absorbed by the cardboard containers they are housed in.

We will continue to monitor the works to gauge how quickly the corrosion is proceeding, and make decisions about how to manage what will be left of the works in the future.

All papers are not created equal

You may be aware that over the last 25 years, there has been a major effort to convert paper production from acidic products that deteriorate quickly to more stable paper. The movement largely came from the library community’s concerns about rapidly deteriorating paper in their collections. The result is that there are now no western producers making acidic papers anymore (other than newsprint), which is great news for libraries, archives and consumers.

Not all of these papers, however, can be guaranteed to truly last long-term (by that we mean over 300 years). Manufacturers can, and do, change the chemical composition of papers quite regularly, and as consumers and staff in a library/archive, it is good to know what is available and how to use it best.

So, let’s look at what’s around us. Our inexpensive everyday photocopy paper is not acidic when tested with a pH pen. This paper can be labeled “acid-free.”

Colour photograph of piece of paper with the words: “Purple = Ok!!” on it. This means that the paper is acid-free.

Test of the pH on everyday photocopy paper.

But it does not meet standards for longevity that we want for paper that will be incorporated with collections on a permanent basis. It’s perfectly fine for bookmarks and flags—items used temporarily.

For long-term quality, look for papers that are marked “permanent” or “archival,” with the infinity symbol set inside a circle.

An image of the acid-free paper symbol—the number eight lying on its side enclosed in a circle.

Infinity symbol designating a permanent or archival quality paper.

Permanent papers can be made with wood pulp (where the harmful acidic lignin is found), but the lignin is generally removed and no acidic additives are included during manufacture. Permanent papers are expected to last several hundred years under normal library or archival storage conditions. To be labeled “permanent” with the infinity symbol, the paper must meet either ISO 9706 or ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 standards.

Archival papers are made to an even higher standard and will last up to 1000 years. These papers are produced with cellulose fibres from plants other than wood and do not contain lignin (usually cotton or linen). Also, the standard for archival papers (ISO 11108) includes requirements for paper strength, which the standards for permanent papers do not include.

Papers labeled as either permanent or archival are recommended for long-term use with collections. It is probably best to choose archival papers when strength is a consideration, such as wrapping or enclosures.

A colour photograph showing an enclosure to house textual documents.

An archival quality paper enclosure.

As a final note, it is important to remember that the storage environment for paper also has a huge impact on its longevity. For every five-degree reduction in temperature, it is estimated that the lifespan of paper doubles. Everybody put on a sweater!

A Sticky Situation: The Perils of Sticky Notes

The convenience of the sticky note cannot be beat… the variety of sizes and colours allows us to organize and place our notes and thoughts exactly where we want them. They are used in offices, homes, schools—I only wish I held the patent!

There are strong arguments, however, against their use in libraries and archives. Between 1988 and 1989, when conservation scientists at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration first tested sticky notes, they found that an adhesive residue remains on the surface of the paper that comes into contact with the note (even if the note is placed and removed immediately), that the adhesive can remove electrostatic images (that is, printing ink), and that the dye in the note can run if exposed to water. A more recent repeat of the testing confirmed these findings, showing that most of the note adhesives will stain over time.

The following images show the results of a highly unscientific test conducted at Library and Archives Canada. Although the results are startling, they are not surprising.

1. This is a good book—I will need to reference this chapter later…

A sticky note showing colour fading from the sun

A sticky note showing colour fading from the sun

2. “Goodness, I’ve heard about what light can do to colours. That really faded in a short time.”

A sticky note is used as a bookmark

A sticky note is used as a bookmark

3. “Uh oh… I was not expecting THAT… this didn’t even get wet.”

Evidence of glue residue on a page after a sticky note is removed

Evidence of glue residue on a page after a sticky note is removed

So, that’s why sticky notes are not approved for use with collection materials, not even for temporary use!

Remember, please keep sticky notes away from collection materials, and continue to contribute to the long-term preservation of Canada’s documentary heritage.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at LAC: The Nitrate Film Preservation Facility

In our last article we discussed the Gatineau Preservation Centre. Today, we would like to introduce to you LAC’s Nitrate Film Preservation Facility.

Colour photograph of the exterior of a building. Front: Parking lot area; Back: Main entrance to the building

Exterior view of the LAC Nitrate Film Preservation Facility

Did you know that a portion of LAC’s film and photographic negative collection is nitrate-based? The collection consists of 5,575 reels of film, dating from as early as 1912, and close to 600,000 photographic negatives. Because of the potential for nitrate-based cellulose film to combust if storage temperatures are too high, LAC chose to house this material in a facility that provides a stable, cold, dry environment essential for preservation.

Colour photograph of light boxes on a table. Nitrate negatives are on top of the boxes. Back: Three people standing next to the table.

Light boxes displaying nitrate negatives, some of which show obvious signs of deterioration

This collection captures some of Canada’s most significant moments up until the 1950s when the medium became obsolete. Among the materials preserved at the new facility is one of Canada’s first feature films, Back to God’s Country, along with works produced by the National Film Board of Canada and photographic negatives from the collections of Yousuf Karsh.

The Nitrate Film Preservation Facility, which opened in 2011, is an eco-designed building with various sustainable features that include a “green” roof, well-insulated walls to reduce energy consumption, high-efficiency mechanical systems to reclaim energy, and technology to reduce water use.

Colour photograph of workers at a nitrate work station. Front: A female employee handling a nitrate negative; Back: A group of people discussing another nitrate negative.

Nitrate Film Preservation Facility work station

The state-of-the-art facility also features a range of technical innovations that meet the current standards for preservation environments and provide the required fire prevention and protection measures. The building is also equipped with 22 individual vaults, specialized monitoring and an exterior buffer zone of land for added security.

For more photographs of the Nitrate Film Preservation Facility, visit Flickr!

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!