May 2, 2012

Carbon Copies II

Filed under: the process of archival processing — susanwoodland @ 10:55 am

Continuing my thoughts on carbon copies brings me to the first reason I listed in my last post about why carbon copies present problems when they sit in a folder for years and decades:

The paper used for the copy was a cheaper quality than the letterhead used for the original letter or report.  There is generally no letterhead, meaning there is less information on the letter, and it is has less value as an artifact, or as a visual object.  Often we mine the letterhead for data such as current name of organization, address or list of officers; because there is almost always a date on a carbon copy of correspondence, it’s a good way of determining who was who at a given moment.  But the biggest problem is the shorter lifespan of the carbon copy’s paper itself – the paper is almost always either a more fragile onionskin, or a highly acidic quality of paper like newsprint.

This newsprint-like paper not only turns brown and dry and eventually cracks into illegible bits of typewritten words,

Carbon copy of 1919 memo - brown, acidic newsprint, cracking at edges, with hand notations and calculations

but it turns everything that it touches in the folder brown as well.

For example, this type of paper turns up also in notes written on sheets smaller than 8 1/2″ x 11″, and attached to documents within a folder.  Not a carbon copy, the same acidic paper can do damage no matter where it is found:

1974 correspondence regarding the handling of pledges in the newly merged UJA and Federation of New York campaign - the back of page 1

The front of page 2














These notes leave their size and shape on the papers in direct contact with them, as a permanent stain. Below, the culprit:

A note left for 38 years between pages one and two

In the same box there were several copies of a memo on colorful letterhead, listing new staff appointments, which may be helpful for identifying files.  In front of the top copy was a folded-up newsclipping, which discolored the first few copies.

1974 joint campaign staff memo - discolored by a newspaper clipping

Fortunately, the last copy was almost unaffected.


  1. i like the copy with the anotations and cracked edge; there is something about the yellowed edges and the red and black ink that evoke work.


    Comment by dfalkmd — May 4, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    • Yes! You can see that there was a thought process, someone jotted down notes – a simple of what he did at work, what exactly his work was. Something else I hadn’t mentioned in the post: – when we have time we preservation photocopy the carbon copy and discard the yellowed original. But when there is handwriting and evidence of “work” it demands retaining the original. For how long I don’t know – eventually the “original carbon” will crumble beyond recognition. Perhaps the real original, on letterhead, survived in a folder of the “work” of the recipient. Perhaps not.


      Comment by susanwoodland — June 21, 2012 @ 9:09 am

  2. Imagine all the things that have happened, all the ways the world has changed, while year after year for 38 years a piece of notepaper was stuck between pages 1 and 2 of a document. Really sets one to dreaming.


    Comment by Christine Grant — June 20, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

    • Glad you think that way too Christine. Well said. That piece of paper was waiting to be rediscovered. Our own files and folders, arranged without thought, move on to a very different life among strangers discovering a lost world.


      Comment by susanwoodland — June 21, 2012 @ 9:10 am

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