DHPS Tips: Pencils in the Archive

Wed, 08/09/2023 - 14:42

August traditionally means back-to-school shopping, and even in our digital world, pencils are a common school supply for kids. In archives, libraries, and other collecting institutions, having a stash of pencils is not limited to a particular time of year! They are in use constantly as one of the most important tools for working with collections.  

There are several reasons pencils are preferable to pens in any setting where you are working on, with, or near collections. As it states in the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Code of Ethics and Professional Practices for Collections Professionals, “Collections professionals identify potential risks and complications and act to reduce or eliminate them.” Pens, and the related markers and highlighters, are a risk to collections that pencils can mitigate. 

Preventing Permanent Damage: Ink from pens can potentially seep into the paper or other archival materials, causing permanent damage. Over time, ink may fade, spread, or become acidic, compromising the integrity of the documents or artifacts. Pencils, however, use graphite that can be easily erased or removed without causing long-term harm. 

Reversible and Non-Destructive: Pencil marks can be easily erased or corrected, making them a non-permanent medium for recording information. Archivists often need to make annotations or changes to catalog entries, and using pencils allows for flexibility without damaging the original records. 

Minimizing Accidental Marks: The nature of pen ink makes it more prone to smudging, smearing, or accidentally transferring onto adjacent pages or artifacts. Pencil marks, being dry and erasable, reduce the risk of unintended marks and ensure the preservation of the surrounding materials.  

Ease of Handling and Reproducibility: Pencils provide a tactile advantage when handling delicate and fragile materials. The pressure applied by the pencil can be adjusted to prevent unnecessary indenting or friction, which might harm sensitive surfaces. Additionally, pencil markings can be easily reproduced through photocopying or digitization processes. 

Preservation Standards and Guidelines: Many archives and institutions follow professional preservation standards that recommend the use of pencils to protect the long-term integrity of the materials. These guidelines prioritize the conservation of artifacts and documents for future generations. For example, pencils only in a National Archives Research Room.  

Even with all these reasons, there are still questions!  

How can I better read faded pencil writing? The National Archives recommends: “Consider reformatting any record becoming illegible due to fading media or other instability, if possible. Reformatting will preserve the best possible copy of the information if the record continues to become illegible.” 

What about pens with “archival ink?” Archival inks (pigment-based, not dye-based) will last longer than regular inks in the same storage conditions. However, they are still non-reversible, making them unsuitable for collections use.  

How should I label photographs? The Library of Congress recommends, “Whenever possible, avoid marking photographs. If absolutely necessary, limit markings and write on the back and near the edge with a soft graphite pencil. It is preferable to mark the photograph’s housing materials.” Pencils work well on fiber-based prints and not well on modern, plastic-coated prints. A STABILO All pencil is recommended for those.  

If I can’t label items directly, how should identifying information be attached? The best way is to place the items in some sort of enclosure and label the enclosure. Archival manila-type folders are commonly used in archives to organize documents. In a pinch, you can fold a piece of acid-free paper in half and use it as a makeshift folder. If you’re using archival plastic sleeves, bags, or page protectors, slide a sheet of acid-free paper or cardstock into the enclosure to use for labeling.  

Should I use mechanical or regular pencils? Some people find writing with mechanical pencils produces a cleaner, finer line, especially compared to a less-sharpened pencil. However, the leads can break more easily and leave a bit of a mess. It also may come down to the archive rules. Some archives prohibit mechanical pencils and some even provide you with pencils. Best to check as you’re planning your research visit. 

Overall, using pencils only is safest, lest you end up with inky paw prints on your 15th C. manuscript

Do you have a preservation topic, question, or creative solution you would like us to cover in this series? Reach us by email at, or connect with us on the DHPSNY Facebook page or DHPSNY Community Facebook Group.

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