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The State of Acid Free Papercrafting

When I was first introduced to modern scrapbooking, it was through Creative Memories. Through attending a few of their parties, I certainly learned a lot about the importance of good materials and why using their quality albums was far better than sticking my photos onto printer paper with rubber cement and using a ball point pen for journaling.

The years rolled by and new products went onto the market. I found myself being less concerned by, but still aware of, the various archival terms and what they meant. A few weeks ago I got to thinking about acid free scrapbooking products. Today I’m sharing my thoughts, findings, some general information and food for thought on the subject.

What does “acid free” mean? And what is “lignin”?

Paper is made from wood, which is acidic. Lignin is a chemical within the paper that causes yellowing and general yuckiness. There are processes which can make the paper ‘acid free’, and that process involves neutralizing or eliminating lignin. Therefore, the two go together. (For more on the topic, I really like THIS ARTICLE that explains what acid free paper really means, and why it’s important.)

Are my scrapbook supplies acid free?

I have long assumed that any scrapbook paper is acid free – but I could be wrong, and so I am checking paper before I buy it now. When I looked through my papers and stickers, I noticed that a lot of them did not specify acid/lignin free. I wondered if this meant some companies just aren’t putting that notation of acid free anymore, or if companies had lowered quality standards and I never noticed?

To find out, I contacted five of my favorite manufacturers: Tim Holtz, Studio Calico, American Crafts, Sassafras, and Pink Paislee and asked them. “Are your stickers and papers acid free?” I was happy to hear from all of them that indeed they are using acid/lignin free product for their stickers and papers despite not always labeling their products as acid free. This does not mean that all paper and stickers from any scrapbook manufacturer are made with acid free materials, but it is an indicator that companies may not think it is important to label their products as acid free even if they are. I recommend checking product labels, and looking up information on company websites if it’s not listed.

After my paper and sticker quest, I started looking at adhesives. A number of gluesticks and liquid adhesives are “non-toxic” but say nothing of archival qualities or being acid free. All the brands of tape runners or dry adhesives that I looked at did say both archival and acid free. It’s a good reminder to check that product packaging and know what you’re paying for.

So if it’s in a scrapbook store, is it safe?

Recently I encountered some concerned students in a class I taught when I told them the liquid medium they were using was not acid free. They had assumed because it was marketed to scrapbookers that it must be acid free. This is absolutely not true! First of all, there is no law stating that to sell a scrapbook supply it must be archivally safe. Secondly, many materials such as metals, inks, and fabrics aren’t paper based, so the term “acid free” really doesn’t apply to them.

The same goes for paints, inks, artist mediums, beads, and so much more. “Acid free” is not a term that is applicable to those products in determining their archival safety. So what is it – and is it safe? I think it depends on the material and what your expectations are. Some things simply aren’t meant to last for 100 years. Will it degrade over time? Most things will – it’s a matter of how much and if that is of concern for you.

So does acid free really matter?

I believe the answer is yes and no. You see, the acid free paper and stickers sold at my local craft store are packaged in plastic, transported in cardboard, handled by store employees and customers, and comes in contact with all kinds of things. In other words, I’m not expecting that the materials I use are perfectly acid free. Likewise, the surface that I work on, my own hands, and so many other environmental factors make what I’m doing imperfect from an archival perspective. Even so, the projects that I make with quality acid-free papers and adhesives, and archival printed photos and pens visibly hold up better even after a few years than those I did with products that aren’t. If I am working on a card or gift tag, or a home decor project that I only want to last for a year or two it doesn’t matter at all – but for something I hope will last for a decade or longer, then I am more mindful of my material selection. Ultimately, how much archival products matter is a personal choice that every crafter must make.

How archival are my scrapbooks then?

I do believe that using quality product will help the life of your projects and that they last longer themselves. Just looking at my own albums from the last 25 years I can clearly see differences. As a scrapbooker, I’m concerned with archival qualities of my photos themselves. I don’t skimp on photo paper, and mostly I have them printed by professional lab on archival paper which I know is better than my personal home set-up.  In fact I have had several layouts that I made five years ago with home-printed photos that are so faded the photos are now barely visible – they have totally faded out. It’s a good reminder that there are a lot of factors that determine how long your scrapbook pages will last.

If ultimate archival quality is truly your goal, I’d suggest working with museum quality archival materials (including paper, adhesive, gloves, washing hands with special cleanser, cleaning work surfaces, etc) and doing a lot of research on the best of everything – from photo processing to the pens and papers you use.

If you want  to make sure your projects are long lasting, but don’t want to stress about it – then just take care to use good materials. Do your research on photo processing and printing. Don’t skimp on good paper. Use quality adhesives and mediums that are acid free, an archival quality pen, and have fun.

Don’t care how long the project lasts? Then use whatever you like, no worries.

Bottom Line?

Personally I will be paying more attention to the papers that I buy, as well as continuing to evaluate materials used in pre-made embellishments and determining if I feel they’ll last or fall apart quickly. As scrapbooking has more cross-over with other crafting types, and as we see more art journal style and old fashioned scrapbooks (ephemera + photos + journaling) emerge, it is more important than ever for scrapbookers concerned with archival and acid free quality products to pay attention and be informed consumers. There are no wrong choices, and no right way to do things. It’s up to each of us to decide what our priorities are, and to shop accordingly.

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