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Making Sense of the Acid Free Lingo

We have frequently been asked the question, "What's the big deal about scrapbooking stuff being acid free?"  That's a great question. A decade ago most people haven't even heard the term "acid free."  And now it is all the rage!  We hope that this article might shed just a little light on the subject and help you make informed choices about products the next time you head to the store.

First of all, here are a few definitions to get us started.

  1. Acid free - a term used for materials that have a pH value of 7.1 or higher.
  2. pH scale - this is a scale that uses numbers from 0 to 14 to measure the amount of acidity in paper, photographs, stickers etc. 0 to 6.9 is considered acidic.  Numbers 7.1 to 14 measure alkalinity.
  3. pH neutral - pH level of 7.0 is considered neutral.
  4. Acid migration - This term refers to the transfer of acidity from one source to another through physical contact or acidic vapors.  This really does happen! A photo that shares the same page as a newspaper clipping is not safe even if they are not touching!
  5. Lignin - this is an organic bonding material found in wood fiber.  Lignin is acidic and causes paper and photographs to deteriorate.
  6. Buffered paper - this refers to papers that contain an alkaline reserve of calcium carbonate (or an equivalent) of at least 2%.  Calcium carbonate is a colorless or white alkaline chemical that is used to inhibit the formation and migration of acids. Buffered papers are important because they slow down deterioration, but they are not totally immune from it.
  7. Fugitive Dyes - these are pigments or dyes that are used to color some papers that bleed when wet or even in humid climates.  To check your paper for fugitive dyes, wash a scrap piece under the tap and watch for color in the sink.   Let it dry on a piece of white paper and look for color that might pass off onto the white paper under it.
  8. De-acidification - This refers to treatments that neutralize the acids in paper by applying a mild alkaline solution. A warning though...it does not reverse damage caused by acids before the treatment was applied.
  9. Archival Quality - this is a term indicating that something is chemically stable and has a stronger resistance to adverse environmental conditions. (From "An ounce of Preservation" by Craig A. Tuttle)

Let's face it.  We all want to make keepsakes that will last! Who wants to know that all of their hard work and long hours will be gone soon?  However, does that mean that if you add on a movie ticket keepsake that isn't  "acid free" that all of your hard work is wasted?  Of course not.  Think of it as a scale.  All papers and photos will decay over time.  Low quality papers full of acidic content such as newspaper will just deteriorate faster than a high quality paper that is lignin-free, buffered, acid free and free of fugitive dyes.  You can easily see that newspaper clippings yellow and become brittle in just a couple of years.   Whereas high quality archival products can protect your photos and memories for hundreds of years.

Don't forget that light, dust, finger prints, and humidity can also damage your photos and memorabilia.  You should store your albums away from bright, direct sunlight and make sure that little fingers keep away from photos etc.  Which brings me to the issue of page protectors (a must have in my house where children simply love looking at their albums!).  Page protectors keep your pages safe from finger prints, dust, spills etc. Make sure that the page protectors you use do not contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or acetate.  Polypropylene is the most common plastic used in sheet protectors and is archival safe.

So, what should you do? Some people are purists and will not let anything remotely harmful near their scrapbooks.  Others believe, "So what if I use a bit of non-acid free papers or memorabilia throughout my album?  So what if it lasts for 80 years instead of 200?"  It's a question that is only answered by you.  It comes down to doing what you feel is best for you. Hopefully this article has helped you be able to make an informed choice about how you want to preserve your memories. 

If you want to know more about this topic you may want to check out the book "SOS: Saving Our Scrapbooks" by Creating Keepsakes

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