If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Art & Artifacts

Listen: How one man changed the course of paper preservation

Stereo Chemistry visited the US Library of Congress and National Archives to learn about a self-trained chemist and the books he donated to study how paper ages

by Cici Zhang
December 7, 2018


Credit: C&EN

The smell of old books. The crinkle of the yellowing pages. While browsing the stacks of the library, have you ever wondered how paper ages and why some sheets last longer than others? You wouldn’t be the first. Stereo Chemistry caught up with paper researchers after learning about a special collection of books at the US Library of Congress, a collection of more than 1,000 volumes spanning five centuries that have essentially donated their bodies to science. Listen to learn more about these books and William Barrow, the polarizing, self-trained chemist who collected them and helped bring about modern-day paper-preservation methods.

Subscribe to Stereo Chemistry on iTunes, Google Play, and TuneIn.

The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.

A photo of a photo of William Barrow.
Credit: Cici Zhang/C&EN
This image of William Barrow hangs in a paper-testing lab at the Library of Congress.

[sounds of paper shuffling]

Mark Ormsby: This is a paper from Florence, Italy, or manufactured in Florence, Italy, in 1486.

Cici Zhang: That’s Mark Ormsby, a conservation scientist at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. And he’s showing us a pretty precious, historic piece of paper. He’s studying it to understand how paper degrades and which pieces of paper are at risk of degrading most quickly.

Matt Davenport: Those high-risk papers will need more care from the people working to preserve the documents, as well as the information written on them. And obviously the Archives holds some pretty important pieces of American paper. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.

Cici: But paper conservation isn’t just important in the United States. Most of humanity’s history is stored on paper all around the world. Sure, we’re making more of it digital now. But there are works of our past that become so important, so legendary, that the paper itself becomes an artifact, a national treasure.

Matt: Just ask Nicolas Cage. And we promise that will be our only National Treasure joke this entire podcast.

Cici: At any rate, Mark was telling us that the fate of a given sheet of paper is largely determined by its past and how it was made.

A photograph shows C&EN editorial fellow Cici Zhang interviewing Mark Ormsby.
Credit: Matt Davenport/C&EN
Mark Ormsby of the National Archives and Records Administration talks with C&EN reporter Cici Zhang about nondestructive methods for analyzing paper.

Mark Ormsby: The methods of manufacturing the paper changed over time, and there were periods where they were really detrimental to the long-term preservation of the documents.

Cici: The National Archives has more than 10 billion sheets of paper, produced during different time periods using a variety of methods. So you might wonder where scientists like Mark even begin their efforts to understand how to protect it all.

After all, it’s not like there’s an endless supply of old books and historic documents just lying around for Mark and his coworkers to study, dissect, and run tests on.

Matt: Well, actually, there is a supply. It just isn’t endless. The Library of Congress has a collection of more than 1,000 books left behind by a man who helped modernize preservation chemistry. These books have essentially donated their bodies to science. And today we’re going to look into their story and tell you about William James Barrow, a polarizing figure in the world of analytical science.

Cici: You’re listening to Stereo Chemistry. This is Cici Zhang.

Matt: And I’m Matt Davenport.

Cici: In this episode, we’re going to talk about the science of paper preservation, which really wasn’t a scientific practice until the mid-1900s. Barrow became an important figure in making it a formal practice. But he’s also a controversial one. To get at the chemistry and the controversy, let’s start with a brief history of paper.

Matt: In the early days, paper was made of cotton. People literally call it rag paper. But throw whatever connotations you associate with “rag” out the window—the cotton paper was the good stuff. We didn’t move to wood-pulp paper until the Industrial Revolution, around the turn of the 19th century. Mass production brought low-cost paper to the masses, but the trade-off was that paper quality took a serious hit.

Cici: Sturdy cotton paper gave way to less-robust wood-pulp paper. And the size of the fibers within the material turns out to be important here. Cotton’s fibers remain long and strong over the ages. Wood pulp has comparatively shorter fibers, which results in a comparatively weaker paper.

Matt: Another thing that changed when industrial papermakers shifted to wood pulp is the acidity of paper. Ever since the long, long ago, papermakers have used a sort of paper-coating technique called sizing. Sizing helps printed words maintain nice crisp lines, rather than bleeding into blobs and puddles.

For example, with cotton rag paper, gelatin sizing was a common practice. Mark tells us that involved taking a sheet of handmade paper and dipping it into a warm vat of gelatin. Gelatin sizing, however, was a labor-intensive process.

By the early 19th century, a new, easier sizing method came around that used rosin and an alum compound, such as aluminum sulfate. And this new sizing method made the paper more acidic.

Cici: In the 16th century, your typical sheet of paper had a pH of around 7. By the 20th century, it had dropped to less than 5. We learned this from a newsletter started by the American Book Bindery, but guess who they cite?

Matt: That’s right. It’s our boy, William J. Barrow. More on him in a minute. We’ve still got a little bit of paper chemistry to wrap up.

Cici: One more compound we wanted to mention is lignin, a biopolymer in wood pulp that breaks down over time. Some of the products of that breakdown are chromophores that make paper appear yellow. Others are acids that can break up cellulose chains in paper. To make matters worse, the products of the cellulose degradation can be acidic.

Matt: To sum it up, acid is bad news for paper, yet the industrial papermaking process was making paper more acidic, and it stayed that way for a long time. Mark tells us the industry didn’t really start moving to mass producing more alkaline paper until the 1990s.

Cici: Despite this fact, researchers began to suspect that acid is the major culprit behind paper degradation in the early 19th century. Even though they weren’t making headway in getting papermakers to change their methods, this gave conservators a starting point to consider in terms of paper degradation. It was something tangible that could be addressed.

Matt: Yeah, and by the early 20th century, the reduced longevity of this low-quality paper was becoming increasingly apparent. In the US, the National Bureau of Standards—which is now NIST—set out in earnest to confirm why paper was degrading. Researchers in Europe did, too. But Barrow became this figure who stood out in terms of his scientific approach to conservation. So who was he?

Adam Scher: William J. Barrow was a Virginia native who was born in Brunswick County, which is really at the south-central part of the state on the border with North Carolina. And he’s most well known for his work with paper and book restoration, starting in the 1930s in Richmond, Virginia, where he established a shop, a restoration shop.

Cici: That’s Adam Scher, vice president for collections at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Adam Scher: And although he wasn’t formally trained as a scientist or a chemist, he’s often known as a scientist or chemist because he popularized two processes for paper restoration. One was deacidification and the other was lamination.

Matt: Remember how we said Barrow was a controversial figure? Lamination is a big part of that. Lamination refers to sealing paper within plastic using heat, pressure, and/or adhesives.

Cici: At the time, lamination wasn’t new. The National Bureau of Standards had started doing lamination experiments to preserve paper in the late 1920s. Barrow then came along and developed a more practical and portable method to make it more accessible for smaller operations. This really helped popularize the practice.

Matt: Lamination has since fallen out of favor with conservators. For one, the process itself can damage documents. Let’s look at a popular method in the time of Barrow, which was to sandwich a document between films of cellulose acetate, heat the polymer, and apply pressure. Done without proper care, this technique could scorch documents and melt wax seals.

We’ll talk about some of the chemical complications with lamination in a second, but let’s return to the controversy around Barrow. The people we talked to for this podcast told us, because of Barrow’s role in making lamination so popular, it can be easy to look back and sort of demonize him for that. And honestly, I totally got that impulse when I learned that documents from the Louisiana Purchase had been laminated.

Cici: Yeah, you kind of just stopped talking when Mark at the Archives told us about that.

Matt: Oh totally. I’m so glad you were there to ask follow-up questions.

Cici: We learned that those documents aren’t laminated anymore. Mark told us a paper conservator named Susan Page helped delaminate them back around 2000, when they were getting ready to go on exhibit.

Matt: Page coauthored a paper about the delamination that said, “Upon initial examination, many of the Louisiana Purchase documents appeared to be in relatively poor condition. But after delamination, the documents were brighter in appearance, the ink contrast was greatly enhanced, and the integrity of the paper had been preserved.”


Cici: For those documents, the lamination was sort of like a double-edged sword. Although the laminated pages did not look great, the documents were actually decently preserved when the lamination was undone. Here’s historian Adam Scher again.

Adam Scher: The jury’s kind of out about whether or not lamination is a good idea. There are a number of scientists who have done work in the 1970s and ‘80s who were led to believe that lamination was not good for long-term preservation of paper. But there are actually a lot of collections around the country that were laminated and are still holding up quite well.

Cici: We got to see another example of this at the National Archives with Mark Ormsby. He showed us a newspaper sheet from the 1930s, which was usually made of pretty cheap paper that no one expects to stay intact. The sheet was from the Sunday Star, printed in Washington, DC, and laminated in cellulose acetate. And it displayed a fabulous headline: “Interview with a Famous Animal Photographer.”

Matt (at the National Archives and Records Administration): This is not what I expected to see when you opened up the folder, but it’s awesome. It’s animals dressed up basically like people doing people things. Kittens getting married ...

Cici: Rabbits reading a newspaper. There is a cat riding a turkey.

A photo of a preserved newspaper with rabbits dressed like people.
Credit: Matt Davenport/C&EN
A laminated newspaper from the 1930s features the work of a famous animal photographer.

Matt: I totally did not even notice that.

Cici: Can we actually touch it?

Mark Ormsby: Sure.

Cici: It feels like a film.

Matt (in studio): So when done properly, lamination can preserve paper. The problem is it’s really easy to laminate something improperly, especially in the middle of the 20th century.

Cici: Mark told us that companies making laminates and other materials for coating paper, such as adhesives, weren’t shy about overselling the quality of their products.

Mark Ormsby: We have those examples in the lab that I showed you where somebody, some company, wanted the Archives to use their wonderful product that would preserve everything. Well, now it’s disintegrated.

Matt: Another problem was that people who were laminating paper weren’t taking the acid out of the paper first. And remember, acid is bad news for paper. Barrow actually developed a deacidification method to be employed before lamination.

Cici: But again, not everyone was doing that. And laminating the surface of paper isn’t going to protect it from the acidity inside the paper. That paper is still going to degrade, laminated or not.

Mark Ormsby: It was clearly known that you needed to deacidify and someone else made the decision not to. So the problems there that are showing up today, you can’t really put those on Barrow in every case.

Matt: We heard from Andrew Davis, a chemist at the Library of Congress, that lamination gets a bad rap for a good reason. It’s dangerous in the wrong hands.

Cici: For Mark, though, what separates Barrow from people who wanted to profit from lamination was that Barrow wanted to understand what he was doing. And he wanted to help others understand it as well to further the science of conservation.

Mark Ormsby: The company that was telling you, “Use my wonderful adhesive!” didn’t do decades of scientific research, didn’t publish their data. If you were a huckster and you want to make money, preservation is not really the field to go into. If you are that good at sales you could have made a lot of money in another field.

Matt: We heard a similar sentiment from Adam Scher. And, for me, as an outsider looking into this story for the first time, Adam’s take felt like a reminder that people are seldom all hero or all villain. In the best of circumstances, we’re creatures that make mistakes. And if we’re lucky or talented or maybe a little of both, we can build on our hard-earned knowledge and that of others to move something bigger than ourselves forward. Here’s Adam.

Adam Scher: The chemistry was always there. The knowledge was there that wood-pulp paper that was being made at the start of the Industrial Revolution had a high acidic content. But what he was able to do—because he had so many private clients working with him—was he was able to take the process of paper restoration which was largely an art form and convince these folks who were working on works of art or works on paper that the cause of degradation was chemical and that the process to slow it down was chemical as well.

So he’s really one of the folks who actually is important in making that transition from conservation being purely an art or a trade form to being something more scientific.

Cici: When we come back, we’ll look at how modern-day conservation scientists have built on Barrow’s work. And we’ll visit Barrow’s book collection in person. Stay tuned.

Matt: Hey there. What are you doing on Tuesday, Dec. 4, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern? Probably working? I hear that.

But suppose instead, you took a one-hour power break to learn about the hottest trends in recent chemistry research, as well as what experts think the research to watch in 2019 will be. Sounds like fun, right? And also like something you could probably get away with doing at work.

I mean, I know I’ll be attending a webinar called “Predicting the Biggest Chemistry Advances of 2019,” which is being put on by C&EN and ACS Webinars. Join C&EN science editors Lauren Wolf and Michael Torrice as they talk with three very special guests: Marshall Brennan of ChemRxiv, Claire Hansell of Nature, and Jake Yeston of Science.

You can count on C&EN and this expert panel to supply some choice premonitions, but we want to hear your voice, too. Bring your ideas and questions to “Predicting the Biggest Chemistry Advances of 2019,” which again, is happening live on the internet on Tuesday, Dec. 4, at 1 PM Eastern.

You can register for free now at Again, that’s See you there.

Fenella France: And then we had the oversized here and the large volumes. I’m going to need glasses on that. Fourteen seventy-nine I think. Yeah, just beautiful.

A photo shows Fenella France of the Library of Congress.
Credit: Cici Zhang/C&EN
Fenella France, chief of the Preservation Research and Testing Division at the Library of Congress, shows one of the large volumes from the Barrow Book Collection.

Matt: For what, that’s six, five hundred years old? That’s pretty good.

Fenella France: Well that’s the time period where paper was actually rag paper. It was straight made from cotton, cotton rag.

Cici (in studio): That’s Fenella France, chief of the Preservation Research and Testing Division at the Library of Congress. We wanted to talk to her about the books William Barrow’s family donated. The collection’s history is a little murky, but we heard it started out with the Virginia State Library shortly after Barrow’s death in 1967. Some years later, it made its way to the Library of Congress, where it now lives in a basement preservation lab.

Matt: Fenella, who is originally from New Zealand, showed us the collection, over 1,000 books from the 15th century up to the 20th century. The collection resides in a bunch of metal cabinets, side by side, spanning the perimeter of the room. Fenella opened up one of the unassuming gray cabinets, removed an unassuming gray box, and opened it to reveal a 540-year-old book.

Cici: Opening another cabinet, Fenella showed us shelves of baggies where paper samples that had already been excised for analysis were being stored for future testing.

Fenella France: So I was not throwing these away because it’s useful sample. So we keep them here so that people can look here first before cutting out of the book.

Matt: And she showed us drawers filled with electron microscope specimen holders.

Fenella France: When we take a sample of a fiber or a pigment, we put it on a scanning electron microscope stub to do the characterization. But then we keep the original stub.

Cici: And even seeing it, it can be hard to believe that this is real: a collection of antique books that conservationists can touch with their hands and study with destructive techniques.

Matt: Now, Barrow himself was doing destructive tests on these books back in his day. That’s why he was collecting them. And, honestly, we’re not entirely sure how he built up his pretty sizable collection. We asked several people about it, and they all had ideas, but nobody was 100% certain. Here’s our supposition: We know that Barrow was a businessman. And had financial support for his research from the Council on Library Resources. It’s possible he just had enough money to find and buy the books from private sellers as research materials.

Back at the Library of Congress, I asked Fenella how she felt about handling and sometimes cutting samples from Barrow’s collection. And, full disclosure, this was my second time seeing the collection.

Matt (at Library of Congress): I think the first time I saw this, where you see that and you see that you’re so close to it. And, if you’re like me, you think, like, everything about this is wrong. Do you have similar, like, what’s the experience?

Fenella France: There was one time I actually had to, it was a text box that was just like a raunchy Spanish romance novel. We had to cut some out to do some testing and it was just that first cut. I’m like, “Oh god, this is hard.”

Cici (in studio): Back in Fenella’s office, we talked about why this type of testing is important. She told us that she had been involved in a Smithsonian project back in 1998 called the Star-Spangled Banner Project. That one drew on her expertise as a textile scientist to preserve the American flag that inspired the US national anthem.

Fenella France: They gave me like 16 micrograms of sample and said, “Tell us how to save the flag and make it last forever.” So the first thing I did was call back to New Zealand and say, “It looks like this type of wool. I need you to send me a whole lot of new, modern wool that I can age to the same age as the flag and then we can look at the impact of various treatments.”

Cici: On that project, Fenella could age wool from the present day to act as a substitute for the original wool. Then you can see if and how it degrades based on the test, so you need to be willing to sacrifice that material to understand it.

Fenella France: So it’s a running theme in my life. We try so hard to do everything noninvasively. But at the end of the day, sometimes you just can’t do that without doing some destructive testing.

Matt: Remember, the goal for that testing is to learn enough about the material that will help you better protect important flags, documents, and other artifacts. You want to make certain that the sacrifices aren’t in vain.

But certainty is always a stretch in science, right? It’s a field where “make certain” really means “do everything you can to minimize uncertainty.” Fenella had such a limited sample of the real flag—and there was only one real flag to begin with—minimizing uncertainty meant taking wool from today that was very similar to the wool from back then. Then it meant using accelerated aging to make that new wool look as old as the flag sample. That’s how she helped preserve the Star-Spangled Banner.

This is a common technique, but if you had your druthers, you might imagine you’d want to test similar material from the same time period that had aged naturally. With Barrow’s collection, that’s more of a possibility.

Andrew Davis: We don’t have the time for hundreds of years of natural aging. So the best you can do is find books that have aged that much and get a survey of them. And that’s what the Barrow Collection really is. It’s a survey of these books spanning 500 years of printing with associated data for each and every book, asking what its physical and chemical properties are.

Cici: That’s Andrew Davis. He’s the one who told us that lamination got a bad rap for a good reason. He’s a chemist in Fenella’s preservation research division.

Matt: Andrew also said that one way they can use the collection is as this set of reference materials. Let’s say the library wants to test a new conservation technique or a new piece of analytical equipment. And they want to know what the results look like for a specific type of paper with a specific type of ink from a certain time period.

Cici: Thanks to the Barrow Collection, they might have that specific type of paper with that specific ink from a certain time period. Without that natural stand-in, Andrew told us they would turn to facsimile materials, like the aged wool from the Star-Spangled Banner Project.

Matt: So I asked Andrew if working with the Barrow Collection gave him more of a degree of certainty than working with facsimile materials when it came to understanding how to preserve the library’s more precious items.

Andrew Davis: There’s never any degree of certainty, right? You don’t know if your copy of the 16th-century Bible may have sat in your many-great-grandmother’s attic for, you know, two hot humid summers and the one from the Barrow Collection that is maybe similar didn’t. You never know. And that’s part of the problem of preservation.

But it sure as heck is a better guess than some paper you may have made yourself using similar methodology. Sometimes that’s the only answer, but if you have a material available, it’s a very powerful thing.

Cici: We walked with Andrew from his office space back to the Barrow Collection, where he showed us some data from Barrow’s original testing. Barrow studied things like paper pH and mechanical strength.

Andrew Davis: If you look in Barrow’s reports, these are what they put out in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. It was just tables of data: which book number, the average number of folds from that book, the pH, the tear strength, and it’s page after page for individual books.

Matt: And the tests to get those data were destructive. For pH, for example, Andrew told us that one process involves putting about a half sheet of paper in a blender with water. You blend it up and measure the pH of that solution.

Cici: And for mechanical strength, there’s the fold test, which the library has machines to do. You take a strip of paper, about 15 cm long and a centimeter and a half wide. Then you slip that into two clamps on the machine, one of which swings back and forth to fold the paper at the same point each time.

Andrew Davis: And it’s folding through a 270° arc. [Pop] Until it breaks.

Matt (at the Library of Congress): That is really satisfying.

Andrew Davis: Is it not satisfying? It’s just a very satisfying test.

Cici: The machine counts the folds until the paper breaks.

Credit: Matt Davenport/C&EN
Behold the fold test. No precious papers were hurt in the making of this video.

Andrew Davis: You do this 10 times for each fold-endurance test, and then Barrow’s lab did this three different ways for each book. You did it on a blank part of the paper. You did it on an inked part of the paper. You did it against the printing direction. You did it with the printing direction. And you did that for a thousand books. It takes a lot of material. It’s a very destructive test.

Matt: Getting back to the controversy around Barrow, subsequent generations have criticized his appetite for destructive testing. People have also questioned the validity of the methods he used. In his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, the author Nicholson Baker wrote that the fold test is “utter horse [hockey] and craziness.”

Cici: And Andrew told us about another critique of Barrow. He said some people were tempted to take Barrow’s results for more than what they are. For instance, by extrapolating them to predict how long paper would survive.

Matt: Barrow himself did that and maybe shaved a few years off of some life expectancies. After our interview with Andrew, he sent us an excerpt from Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold book we just talked about.

Cici: It’s a section that quotes William Wilson, a paper scientist who worked at the National Bureau of Standards. And he doesn’t sound surprised that he saw books live past the expiration date that Barrow gave them.

Matt: “A lot of these predictions were made to get people’s attention,” Wilson said. “I knew Mr. Barrow, by the way. I don’t know whether he really believed that or what. But it’s almost the end of the century, and somehow most of those books haven’t known that they were supposed to disappear.’”

Cici: So we had talked to Andrew about Barrow’s work. And we just talked to him about criticisms of that work. But we still thought we should ask him the direct question we asked of Mark and Adam earlier: “What do you think of Barrow?”

Andrew Davis: I think he was a very fastidious and serious researcher, I think, who was very good at keeping track of a lot of different things and a lot of different moving parts and that served everyone well. I think just the scope of his studies is very significant.

And being able to keep all of that data around to hold on to it, to know that someone’s going to want it at some point and to start drawing references from it was a very, very impressive thing.

I think in terms of the science, personally—this is just me speaking—I think in terms of the science the scale of it was more impressive than the science. I think the science had built on some work previously which good science does. It wasn’t groundbreaking. It wasn’t totally novel, but the scope of it was novel, and I think that captured a lot of people’s imagination.

So I think as a communicator and as a promoter he was top notch, and that shouldn’t be discounted. I think being able to talk about your results, get the stakeholders, i.e., libraries and people who are trying to preserve books, interested in that science is perhaps his greatest claim to fame in my mind.

Cici (at the Library of Congress): So you wouldn’t call him a chemist? You would call him a chemist?

Andrew Davis: I would absolutely call him a chemist. Yeah, he understood pH. He understood acidity. He understood the effects of different coatings and paper sizings and how those interacted, and he could measure them in a laboratory. I think I’m very comfortable calling anyone who can measure chemical properties in a laboratory a chemist of some variety or another.

Matt (in studio): And that chemist who did destructive testing is now helping chemists who are very interested in less invasive methods.

Andrew Davis: And that’s one study that we’ve been doing is we’ve been looking at modern analytical techniques that were not available, that weren’t even imaginable in Barrow’s day, things like size exclusion chromatography. Looking at the molecular weight of the cellulose molecules that make up the paper. And because we can sample from this collection, we can add a whole new dimension of tests to Barrow’s test result and say OK, does the molecular weight of the cellulose influence and correlate any of these properties that Barrow has already measured? And we can go and sure enough, they do. There’s some molecular weight where above that, the fold endurance is quite good, and below that, the fold endurance just falls off a cliff, and the paper just crumbles in your hands.

Cici (at Library of Congress): Those data. I guess I assume you can use them for future predictions? Like once you’ve got a new specimen you can just test them what molecular weight and see ...

Andrew Davis: Exactly, and that’s one thing we’re very interested in here is minimally to completely noninvasive tests and the size exclusion chromatography only needs a couple milligrams of material. It’s literally a tiny punch out of the paper, less than a millimeter in diameter.

And that was the goal of that project was to say, can we learn predictive properties that we can use to figure out how paper is degrading over time. And so the fold test, which needs sheets of paper from a book, is highly destructive. The size exclusion chromatography is not. That’s something we can do with just a teeny, teeny amount of material and get essentially the same information that I need.

Cici (at Library of Congress): Barrow did the dirty work.

A photograph shows the sample size of paper needed for various tests.
Credit: Matt Davenport/C&EN
This handy sheet hangs outside a paper-testing lab in the Library of Congress. The large red rectangles at the top show how much paper is needed for fold tests to measure paper strength. The large blue rectangle shows how much paper is needed for a conventional pH test. The small square shows the amount of paper needed for a surface pH test being developed at the lab. And the small red dots indicate how much paper is required for size exclusion chromatography, a modern tool that can also reveal paper strength.

Andrew Davis: He did. He did the dirty work. He was the one who cut out the pages. And he’s got a stronger constitution than I do. Because, if you look back at some of these books from the 1500s. Do you want to be the guy who rips out a page from a 1550s’ New Testament? Because I don’t.

Matt (in studio): And remember Mark Ormsby at the National Archives? He’s also doing some of that—taking Barrow’s data and learning how today’s techniques can be used to measure important indicators of paper quality.

Mark Ormsby: We had the near-infrared data on gelatin, we had color measurements, we had X-ray fluorescence measurements of calcium and iron and magnesium.

Cici: Mark’s collaborator on that study, published in 2016, was Tim Barrett, director of the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. He’s a papermaker and a MacArthur fellow. And talking to him about Barrow’s work ... I don’t know. It made us think about paper in a different way.

Tim Barrett: I looked at his plots that showed, for instance, the decline in pH over the centuries and a drop in certain strength properties over the centuries, and I was floored because he had gotten the paper to speak. He had gotten the paper to tell its own story about how it had been made. And I suddenly realized that paper itself holds a lot of secrets about its own making, and then you just have to learn how to decode them. You have to figure out how to get that information out of the paper.

There are a number of reasons why people question his approach. And I would probably back up a lot of that criticism. But there’s no question in my mind that he really opened a door for me.

Matt: One of the reasons we did this story was actually because we had never heard of William J. Barrow, and we thought there were chemists out there who might appreciate his story.

Cici: But in talking to Tim, we came to think that maybe being a little anonymous can be a badge of honor. And he would know.

Matt: There’s a piece of paper that sits under the Declaration of Independence in its display case in Washington, DC. According to the National Archives, this is a “pure cellulose paper beneath the document to buffer the moisture within the atmosphere and provide an opaque background.” We actually had no idea that it was there or that Tim was involved in making it. Until now.

Tim Barrett: There’s a certain amount of satisfaction you get from it being anonymous. If you go to the National Archives Rotunda in Washington, DC. If you look at the documents in the cases and if you get your head over it just the right angle, you can see there’s white paper underneath. And that’s very satisfying. But there is no neon lights, there’s no arrows pointing to the paper. There’s no written material at the rotunda that says that you know who made the paper, and so there’s some real satisfaction in being an anonymous kind of participant in that whole project.

And I think a lot of the great papers of the past were made by people who now are unknown. We don’t know their names, but their work and their relationship with nature kind of is manifest in the paper. So it’s pretty subtle territory, but I think it can be really loaded because of that subtlety.

Cici: At the top of this episode, we talked about paper being a link to our history. But Tim says it’s something even more fundamental than that.

Tim Barrett: Paper is a very, very simple, plain, ordinary material, and it makes it for very interesting conversations when you start to analyze the aesthetic property of paper. But ultimately paper is made from materials that come from nature, and it effectively speaks of our relationship with nature.

Matt: And as the world becomes more digital, Tim suspects we’ll still enjoy being reminded of that connection. And because of this, he thinks the power of paper will only grow stronger in time. And looking back through paper’s history, it is really hard to question its staying power.

Andrew Davis: It’s really hit home to me that paper is a fantastic storage medium. We are still testing his books from 500 years ago. I can’t open a Word document from five years ago. I think if anything it’s a good example that, if you want something to last, put it on paper.

Matt: And it’s a little ironic, right? We’re telling this story about paper as a podcast. But don’t worry. We’re going to print out a script on acid-free paper. And we’ll store it in the cool, dark confines of my file cabinet in my reasonably climate-controlled office. We probably won’t laminate it though.

That’s all for this episode. But please hit us up with ideas for more stories we can tell. We’ve got a few more up our sleeves, but we’re always on the lookout for more.

Thanks to everyone who helped us tell this story. If you enjoyed it, you might be interested to know that Tim Barrett has a new book out called European Hand Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques. Also, we weren’t able to get in touch with Sally Cruz Roggia for this episode, but she has researched Barrow and written some really interesting pieces on him. We’ve got a link to one of those in this episode’s description.

The music we used in this episode, in order of appearance, is “The Ants Built a City on His Chest” by Doctor Turtle, “The Road We Use to Travel When We Were Kids” by Komiku, “The Confrontation” by Podington Bear, and “LoveChances” by Makaih Beats.

Next month on Stereo Chemistry, C&EN wraps up the year by sharing some stories we’ve heard in 2018 but haven’t shared with you yet. If you haven’t already, subscribe to Stereo Chemistry, and resolve to do it before the new year. We’re on iTunes, Google Play, and TuneIn.

Cici: Thanks for listening.


The Ants Built a City on His Chest” by Doctor Turtle is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

The Road We Use to Travel When We Were Kids” by Komiku is licensed under CC0 1.0.

The Confrontation” by Podington Bear is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

“LoveChances” by Makaih Beats is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.