Collecting the Referendum: Preserving Plastic Propaganda

Only six months on from the Scottish independence referendum, and conservators at the National Library of Scotland are already considering the best way to preserve material produced by the two opposing political campaigns. Paper Conservator, Shona Hunter, discusses the difficulties in conserving this modern collection in this week’s blog…

I began working as a conservator at the National Library of Scotland in March 2014. I am part of a team of qualified professionals who carry out remedial treatments, create specialist housing, monitor and control storage environments and train staff and readers on the handling of manuscripts and books. We also prepare items for exhibition and loan. Historic items receive attention as do ephemeral materials which reflect modern life.

The National Library of Scotland is based in Edinburgh, my hometown. I moved back just in time to cast my vote in the referendum on Scottish Independence. Since then I have become involved with repackaging a sample of referendum related paraphernalia. After acquiring some banners, placards and signs, the referendum curator got in touch because she was concerned about the best way to protect and store these items.

Shona Hunter with some modern items from the referendum collection

Shona Hunter with some modern items from the referendum collection

The referendum on Scottish Independence received international attention and raised questions which cut across Scotland’s cultural and political life. In the months leading up to the vote the library began to collect material from both sides of the debate. The material was gathered as part of a library-wide initiative, established at the behest of the Scottish Government. The aim was to generate an unbiased collection that would capture the cultural legacy of the event, as well as the more obvious political aspects. ‘Yes Scotland’ was the principal campaign group for independence, while ‘Better Together’ was the dominant campaign group in favour of maintaining the union. Campaigners on both sides of the debate produced propaganda in various formats, using various modern materials. Certain modern materials deteriorate at a faster rate than their historic counterparts. Others are an unknown quantity as they have not yet stood the test of time.

The library building on George IV Bridge has 13 floors, each containing many rows of stacks. Although the stacks are convenient for storing volumes, it can be difficult to find a suitable home for large oddly shaped items. The curator and I reviewed the available storage space, an overflow area within the manuscripts strongroom, and made a list of the objects within the referendum collection. We identified items at particular risk of damage and prioritised these for repackaging. The items that were flagged up include some giant letters made from foamcore, a wooden handled placard, several maps with annotated acetate overlays, and a few commercially produced outdoor banners.

Foamcore letters advertising the 'Yes' campaign

Foamcore letters advertising the ‘Yes’ campaign

These objects are made from plastic, a material which is becoming increasingly prevalent in libraries and archives. Certain forms exhibit deterioration after just a few years, whilst others remain relatively stable. Therefore, plastic is an area of growing concern amongst conservators. Recognising the plastics which are at risk of deterioration is critical if that deterioration is to be inhibited. Although damage cannot be reversed, conservators can employ steps to slow or even stop further deterioration. For example they can provide archival quality packaging, introduce adsorbents and monitor and control storage environments.

‘The Conservation of Plastics’ by Yvonne Shashoua is a useful reference book. The identification, degradation and preventive conservation of various plastics are covered in detail. The four most volatile plastics include cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate, poly (vinyl chloride) and polyurethane. Light, heat, oxygen and water have been identified as triggers and accelerators of degradation. Since there are no international standards on storage environments for plastics, libraries and archives tend to apply those used to preserve paper and books: relative humidity of 45-55%, temperature of 18-20°C, maximum light levels of 50-100 lux, and the elimination of UV.

Conservators understand that unsuitable packaging materials can cause long term damage. Acidity and discolouration from poor quality papers can contaminate and stain adjacent materials. Archival packaging offers protection to collection items, significantly enhancing the longevity of vulnerable materials. In repackaging items from the referendum collection the following guidelines and materials are being considered.

Adsorbents (including activated carbon cloth, silica gel and zeolites) can be used to slow the degradation of plastics by adsorbing harmful gases. Adsorbents are used in cooker hoods, shoes and foodstuffs to remove odours and excess moisture. They can be installed in a filter system, or placed into a storage box. Plastic objects should be stored in and on chemically inert materials. Materials which release organic vapours should be avoided, and storage boxes should be designed with proper ventilation holes. In addition, plasticisers are drawn out by contact with absorbent materials so these should also be avoided. Lastly, layers of silicon release paper should be used to interleave items, as plastic objects should not be stored in direct contact with each other.

I am keen to learn from the experiences of conservators, and would welcome your suggestions. Please get in touch if you have some ideas about the best way to house the materials described in this article.

Shona Hunter

Book and Paper Conservator

National Library of Scotland


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