Plastics are a wonderful material for creating all manner of useful items but as NRS conservator Andy McFarlane explains, they can create difficult conservation challenges…

plastech

Whatever image comes to mind when you hear the word “Archives”, I am pretty certain it will be of something old, pre-modern. “Modern” and “Archives” seem contradictory – they just do not seem to go together.

It can be difficult to describe what we mean by Modern Materials. I found this description online…

Modern materials are developed through the invention of new or improved processes, for example, as a result of ‘man’ made materials/ingredients or human intervention, in other words not naturally occurring changes. (www.the-warren.org/downloads/smartmaterials/Smart%20and%20Modern%20Materials.htm)

This draws a distinction between naturally occurring materials and those that come about through human intervention. Useful, but too loose for my purposes; man made narrows the focus but human intervention is so broad it makes the distinction virtually redundant.

What I am talking about is synthetic polymers, products of the petrochemical industries. Plastic, although strictly a description of malleability, is an acceptable commonly used term. Of course, not all polymers are synthetic. Cellulose, the building block of paper, is a natural polymer. And there are numerous example of naturally occurring plastic materials, such as rubber, shellac and gutta percha.

Plastic Fantastic

Plastic files and other packagingWhat makes synthetic polymers such a game-changer is their versatility. Taken individually, mixed to create co-polymers, with additives to improve strength, dimensional stability, flexibility, colour for decoration or chemical resistance and fire retardation to improve safety, plastics are pretty incredible.

In fact, they are so versatile and can be engineered and mass produced with such precision that they have been embraced like no other material.

Most things that seem too good to be true eventually turn out to be just so, and plastics are no exception – failure to recognise the impact of single-use items being the stand-out example. Clearing the mess up will not be quick, cheap or easy.

So to the Archive…

As we approach the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century the digital age is firmly established. Paper remains a popular material for recording information but national archives such as National Records of Scotland find themselves acquiring new accessions digitally, as well as digitising ‘hard-copy’ material they already possess.

Much of the hardware of the digital world is constructed from plastic components. Computer terminals, servers, hard drives, sim cards; the list is long and ever expanding. And for all the finite precious metals and other minerals utilised for data storage, you will not be surprised to learn that it is often embedded in or coated with some polymer or other. Even the cloud is made of plastic.

Drop back into the last century and early digital formats such as DVDs, CDs and floppy discs come to mind. Carry on drifting back through the 20th century and each decade will reveal its own polymer-based method of recording information; video tapes, magnetic audio tape, safety film, photographic negatives, OHP acetates, vinyl records, photo-mechanical reproductions…

File Under ‘P’ for Plastic

And just as the digital age needs hardware, the same goes for the pre-digital. File bindings, laminates, folders, poly-pockets, self-adhesive tapes, clips, the list goes on. Move away from the more or less solid material brought to mind by the term ‘plastic’ to the more accurate synthetic polymers and a whole new world of dyes, adhesives and pigments are also drawn under the net. And we are only scratching the surface.

The Built Environment

For all the cut stone, wood, steel and poured concrete from which buildings are constructed, our work environment is saturated with synthetic materials. Insulation, ducting, wiring, floor and wall coverings fixtures and fitting, the list is endless.

Living with Paradox

Seemingly single-use plastics are, like Willy Wonka’s Gobstoppers, everlasting. But contrary to popular belief, synthetic polymers are not indestructible.

They degrade – some more than others and not in the same way or on the same time timescale, but inevitably. Chemical structures change and interact in unintended ways, polymer chains break down, plasticizers and other additives migrate, and colours change. What was once clear can become cloudy or yellowed, strength or flexibility can be lost, surfaces may become powdery or tacky, smells develop and volatile organic compounds given off.

The usual suspects are to blame; exposure to extremes of temperature and humidity, particularly fluctuation and rapid change. Light, especially UV, environmental pollutants, time and wear and tear all take their toll, individually and in combination.

And the impact is much as you would expect; things break, stop working and information is lost.

What is to be Done?

disintegrated plan 1Caring for and conserving modern materials is as difficult and as easy as it is for the pre-modern and natural materials that populate our archives, but what produces the best results?

Looking after what we have, treating it with respect and keeping it under conditions that reduce the potential for loss and damage and prolong life are key.

This applies as much to the architecture of the digital archive as it does to the physical objects present in our strongrooms. Modern materials are important because, in all their guises, they increasingly house, store or are key to accessing the precious histories which we are trying to preserve.

Have you tried playing an early 80s CD recently?

Conservation

In the Conservation department at NRS we have ever-growing knowledge of what can be done to prolong the life of modern materials that have become the carriers for must-keep information, such as synthetic inks, dyes and photo-mechanical plans, as well as possessing the skills to lessen the damage of others.

Removing pressure-sensitive tape is a good example. We replace PVC binders, re-house photographs destined to be reduced to a sticky mess in poly-pocket albums and have even arranged for specialist digital transfer of celluloid films and home movies, whilst keeping the originals under conditions designed to slow down the degradation process.

All the materials used in the department are specifically selected for neutrality and stability. We re-use where we can and recycle where we can’t. Even the carrier bags provided for users of our search rooms are bio-degradable.

As knowledge of the planet we live on increases and our understanding of its resources grow, new material will be invented and better ways of utilizing them developed. But the profound legacy of the 100+ year history of synthetic polymers will be with us for some time to come.

If we want future generations to benefit from unlocking the knowledge it contains, we must look after it.

Andy McFarlane

Conservator

National Records of Scotland

If you would like to learn more about modern materials, The Museum of Design in Plastics website (https://www.modip.ac.uk/) is an excellent place to start.

You can find out more about the work of the Conservation team at the NRS website.

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