Today’s Wisdom Wednesday: step away from the laminator!

When you’ve got a crumbling, fragile document that is precious to you and your family history, it can be very tempting to think that lamination will solve the problem.

Lamination is the process of placing a paper document between two sheets of plastic laminate (usually cellulose acetate) and using pressure and heat to fuse the adhesive in the plastic to the fragile paper. This process is not reversible.

Although lamination was popular in institutions 70 to 80 years ago, archivists, conservators, and other professionals never use the procedure today because it is not 100 percent reversible.

The Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP) at the University of Illinois notes:

The terms “lamination” and “encapsulation” are often used interchangeably—and incorrectly so. Though it may sometimes be difficult to distinguish between encapsulated and laminated documents, there are clear differences between the two in both appearance and intention. An irreversible process, lamination employs adhesives and is intended for use on materials with a short life expectancy. In contrast, encapsulation, which is entirely reversible, does not use adhesives and is intended for long-term protection.

Laminating also leads to serious conservation problems, apart from the damage caused by the heat and the adhesive. Moisture can penetrate lamination and cause mold growth that will render the document unreadable. Lamination can make the deterioration caused by inherent vice worse. The laminate can leach gasses that harm materials stored nearby.

Because lamination is irreversible, there is no treatment measure that can help. The plastic coffin of lamination doesn’t prevent further deterioration. So please, please step away from the laminator and never laminate anything made of paper (photographs, letters, documents) that you care about.