The next time you need to buy a ream of paper for your genealogical research, give serious consideration to the permanence of the records you’re creating and then reach for acid-free – or even better – 100 percent cotton paper.
But first, let’s take a brief walk through paper history. If you’ve had the chance to see paper that was made before the 19th century, you may be pleasantly surprised by how well it's lasted. From medieval times until the mid-eighteenth century, paper was made with flax or cotton and sized with gelatin, all relatively stable ingredients.
In 1774, Carl Wilhelm Scheele (is that name in anyone’s family tree?) discovered chlorine, making it possible to use bleach-dyed rags for paper. The chlorine reduced the permanence of the paper, but increased the availability of raw materials to make paper. So paper became not as expensive, but also not as permanent. The same thing happened in 1806 when alum, a highly acidic sizing, was developed.
The proliferation of high-speed printing processes for newspapers and books increased the demand for paper. In response, new and faster methods of making paper were developed. By 1858, the groundwood process, the ability to grind wood fibers, made paper even cheaper to produce. Sulphite, a highly acidic sizing, was developed to speed production and increase profits.
But by the early twentieth century, it was clear that cheaply made paper was so acidic that the deterioration of books and newspapers using this paper had imperiled our shared cultural history. Libraries and archives began to work on ways to mass-deacidify paper. And they began work on how to avoid the problem altogether.
In 1984, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) established the standard for Permanence of Paper for Publications and Documents in Libraries and Archives (ANSI Z39.48-1992 rev 2002). The goal of this standard is to reduce future deterioration issues in printed library materials through establishment of “criteria for coated and uncoated paper to last several hundred years” under optimal conditions in libraries and archives.
The next time you’re in the market for a new ream of paper, you can look for “acid-free” on the label, but there are various standards for "acid-free" paper, with differing requirements. In some professions, paper having a pH between 6 and 7 is considered acid-free, but archival and museum conservators consider 7.5 the threshold.
So use the stuff from Staples that’s labeled “acid-free” for notes and the like. But when you’re ready to print copies of primary sources or produce trees for family members, use 100% cotton paper. If you were writing and submitting a dissertation, the university would require that you use paper of this quality, so why should your genealogical research deserve anything less?