What do I need to consider when deciding how to preserve paper maps safely from the ravages of time?

I am trying to understand some best practices when it comes to archiving and storing paper maps.

Some things one may have to consider...

  • Paper type, size, grain, acidity, mylar?
  • Plotters/Printers they come from (inks used)?
  • Do they have hand-drawn components from being marked up (felts, pens, pencils)?
  • Purpose of map (how often will it be used)?
  • Local weather (humidity,temperature)?
  • Are they laminated or should they be laminated?
  • Security!
  • How to deal with staff turnover (building a catalogue index for example)?
  • anything else...?

Based on some of the considerations above I would imagine proper storage of paper maps would help retain colours and paper size (less drying out!) for examples.


A majority of my work involves recording oral history on maps. These maps are often drawn on with pencils, markers, etc... Then that data is digitized, checked for redundancy and then mapped (in an nutshell that is).

So for example, these maps are often later retrieved to compare with proposed studies or other purposes and some maps are stored indefinitely.

  • Have you contacted the National Archives of Canada? They have historic paper maps going back a loooong time and could provide you with best-practices. (or your national archives ... for non-Canadians) – user681 Nov 23 '11 at 23:30
  • @dan Good call! I get maps off of them all the time, and those are some of the historical maps I want to preserve. I will inquire and maybe even have an answer to share. – SaultDon Nov 24 '11 at 2:07
  • Keep us Canuks posted ... I am sure that they have a digitalization program going ... but the originals, as you suggest, need preservation and their archivists would be in the know. – user681 Nov 24 '11 at 2:18
  • I see that you're in Ottawa. There is a map collectors shop downtown on sparks, not too far from Black's I think (I haven't been there in a few months). Anyways the old couple that run the place will give you amazing advice on how to preserve these maps – dassouki Jan 4 '12 at 16:24
  • There is the Canadian Conservation Institute that can help you with your question. They have expertise in the preservation of artifacts and paper material. cci-icc.gc.ca/caringfor-prendresoindes/… – Dom Jan 4 '12 at 16:46

This will not be a cannonical answer but just some of my experiences. A real archivist can give you a fuller answer.

PAPER: Paper is a tricky medium, whether you are storing maps or have a library of books. The problems of degeneration are compounded for maps because climate can not only causes the paper to degenerate but can also cause the paper to deform (warp, shrink, ripple, crease, expamd etc) which will cause your maps to become inaccurate. So, for paper, scan as soon as possible and if you need a hard copy, transfer to mylar asap as a back-up and digitize from the mylar. Handle the paper as little as possible and do not store in wooden cabinets (the acidity will damage the paper). Lignin-based storage for lignin-based map-substratess = FAIL (eventually - it takes a few years!).

Digitize: 'Nuff said! You need never handle the original again (with luck) and it is handling that does 99% of the damage.

Mylar: This is the traditional material and we had loads of paper maps copied to the stuff. However, it is not perfect either. We stored ours in vertical metal mapchests, this is better than lying flat (I'm told) BUT, re-inforce the holes where the maps go on the hangers. Our chests were like giant multi-hole lever-arch files. With much handling, the holes will rip, maps will fall to the bottom of the chest and even mylar can crease, tear etc.

Pencil, ink etc: It all fades, especially on paper. The old adage of store in a cool dark place is as good as it gets.

Hang, lie flat, roll or fold: Um.. well the order above was our order of preference and also reflects the decreasing space requirements (because with hanging chests you can't store stuff on top up to the ceiling).

Documentation: How often did I enter the map store and confidently drag the ladder to the most dusty distant corner (because that's where the maps SHOULD have been) only to scrabble and swear my way through the store for an hour until I found the map in some random location? Look and learn! Document everything, become psychotic about checking in and out, become certifiably retentive about categorising and arranging your storage. Everybody will hate you, but they will find their maps quickly without damaging other items during their search. It sounds like you have a big storage task. So, get a librarian or professional archivist (even if only part-time). That's what they are trained to do - catalog stuff! You won't regret it. Also, computerize the catalog.

Blood: Paper cuts = blood = dull red stains on the edges of paper maps = you can't sell those ones (our problem, though yours sounds less severe).

Fire: This comes under your "anything else" category. Sprinklers will kill your maps as fast as the fire you're trying to put out. Metal chests are not necessarily the best answer (surprisingly - because they transmit the heat inside and stuff can still burn). Wood can burn sacrificially - but see the issue about lignin above... so... I don't know what the answer is because it sounds like a Catch 22. I'd go with metal, concrete floors and ceilings, climate control, no windows and double fire doors if your collection is THAT important, otherwise just accept the fact that you can't afford it, get the best you can and have digital copies somewhere off-site.

Turn around: Not sure what you mean here but we used to sell a lot of our stored maps. This means a lot of traffic in the map store and a lot of handling. Think about ergonomics of lifting large flat sheets of paper of high shelves when up a ladder, without ripping them... now consider what level of wastage you are prepared to accept, because it is inevitable if that's your storage system (see 'blood').

Purpose of map: Well... common sense can help a LOT here. Store the high-use stuff in multiple copies near the door. Reserve the top-shelves and back-corners for the less-used stuff. Traffic through your store = damage + hot steamy/sweaty bodies with sticky fingers. Limit the potential for damage.

I'm running out of my empricial observations.

  • Thanks for the detail! In terms of turn around I was referring to staff turnover and how to compensate for it. I thought it was going to be hard to get a well rounded answer so I may ask that this become a wiki. – SaultDon Jan 6 '12 at 20:32
  • My pleasure. I'm not a professional archivist so please seek their advice for valuable stuff. Your documentation is your best friend wrt staff turn-over plus setting up proper hand-over sessions when staff leave and thorough induction/orientation session when staff join. My experience was being given a map store to manage and told to go-figure. If you want to see grown men cry, that's the way to do it, especially if the store is shared with load of assorted paper junk that other people can't bear to throw away so calss as 'maps' to have it dumped in your store. Don't let them! Just say 'no'! – MappaGnosis Jan 6 '12 at 20:46
  • Mods, would it be appropriate to turn this into a CW so this answer can be expanded if others have contributions? I have some to input but don't want to post multiple answers and avoid redundancy. – SaultDon Feb 10 '12 at 22:29
  • Can you edit your question and check the "community wiki" option? I've got some info to include if that's OK. – SaultDon Jul 12 '13 at 18:36

Interesting. I have no experience with this, but would recommend that you scan them all just in case something does happen! A high resolution scan can be reprinted in case of disaster, and is easy to store/backup in multiple locations.

  • Thanks Darren, this is definitely one of the things that happens - maps are easily retrieved or encrypted. But what to do with the hard copy originals? I have been doing lots of research and will post some of what I've learned when I get responses from my inquiries. It's very interesting! – SaultDon Nov 24 '11 at 21:58

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