Founder's Day 2012

Preserving the 1802 Charter

210 Years and Counting: Preserving the 1802 Charter

By Lena Chapin

Paper preservation is not something a lot of people think about. Print something off, put it in a manila folder and forget about it until you need it again. But, what if the paper is something precious – something hundreds of years old?

This Founders Day, Ohio University is celebrating the 210th birthday of the first document establishing a university in the Northwest Territory. The charter, penned in 1802, is key to understanding the University's origins.

Maintaining the condition of this valuable piece of OHIO history requires a high level of expertise.

“While it may depend entirely on the condition of the object itself, the age of an object lends to its archival value, meaning that we should take in to account its rarity and provenance when determining the appropriate treatment,” said Miriam Nelson, the incoming head of Ohio University Libraries' Preservation Department.

In the case of preservation, three major factors have to be taken into account: the make-up of the paper; the damage it has received; and the strategies that can be employed to prevent further deterioration.

The year that a document was created provides important information for developing a preservation plan. Until the 19th century, paper was made from the pulp of cotton and linen rags supplemented with small amounts of other fibers. But early in the 1800s, the supply of rags dropped as the demand for paper production rose. This caused a significant shift in paper composition as more fibers from sources such as wood pulp were added in place of linen and cotton.

“At the same time the use of alum-rosin sizing in paper introduced an unstable chemical composition, which contributed to the loss of paper strength caused by over pulping," said Nelson. "Combined with environmental factors this highly acidic composition is responsible for severe deterioration of the cellulose fibers, which we see today as yellowing and brittle paper.”

The 1802 document is likely written on paper produced before significant manufacturing changes took place but it is not immune from the negative chemical responses brought about by age and environmental factors.

“We might expect paper of this kind to last hundreds of years, but only if we take an active role in its preservation," said Nelson. "We must be sure to protect the document from unnecessary exposure to UV light, changes in relative humidity, and improper handling.”

To prevent environmental damage to the document, but still make it available for use, Nelson plans on creating a safe environment for the document such as a display case with UV-filtering glass or filters on the overhead lighting. Monitoring the climate within the display case and creating an enclosure that allows for both safe storage and minimal mechanical stress during use also will be an important part of its preservation. 

“The most important thing is to balance access and protection. Such a unique document should be celebrated and shared as part of OHIO's inception and the University's role in American history," Nelson said. "The steps we take today will ensure that this [charter] can be appreciated by the Ohio University and the Athens community for generations to come.”

Founder's Day