The Iron Gall Ink Website

Ink corrosion - Archival collections

Gerrit de Bruin & Ted Steemers (1998)

Whereas objects damaged by iron gall ink in museum collections are primarily approached on an individual basis, collection keepers and conservators of archival collections have to preserve large groups of records. Like museum collections, archival collections contain individual, highly valued objects; however, archives primarily consist of various and unique records which must be treated en mass. In addition, these records are often bound in large volumes, and conservation treatment of individual objects would require disassembling these bindings. But even then, the sheer volume of these objects makes such an approach economically infeasible. The Netherlands State and Municipal Archives alone is comprised of 500 to 600 linear kilometers of records.

The Nationaal Archief in The Hague is responsible for the preservation of 165 linear kilometers of the total collection. This includes the archives of the government agencies and departments whose administration concern the Dutch State as a whole, such as the Queen's Secretariat, The Houses of Parliament, the ministries, the central state services, and semi-public agencies.













Archives generated by the former Dutch colonies are among the most damaged by iron gall ink corrosion. Among these are the archives of the seventeenth century trading companies, the United East India Company (De Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, V.O.C.) and the West India Company (De Westindische Compagnie, W.I.C.). The administrative records of these companies were not only kept in The Netherlands but also in those colonies with established trading posts. These collections are integral to the history of these countries, with a unique place in world history. This is best explained in the inventory preface of the State Archives:


"The archives of the Dutch United East India Company are among the most important archives preserved in The Netherlands. The importance is not only measured by their extent, which covers about 1277 meters. Their impressive quantity of documents not only provides information about the company, but is also very significant for the history of The Netherlands and for those countries and regions in Asia and Africa where the VOC was established."


The archives from the former colonies have suffered far greater damage by iron gall ink corrosion than their Western counterparts, due in part to the high temperature and humidity of tropical climates. Storage conditions greatly affect the physical condition of archival collections. Still, even with the optimal storage conditions provided by the repositories of The Netherlands State Archives, including air-conditioning and air-purification, the deterioration caused by iron gall ink progresses at a high rate. An estimated 1.5 kilometer of records is currently suffering from severe iron gall ink corrosion.


In addition to differences in storage conditions, there also seem to be significant differences in the ink formulae used by the trading companies. In general, the archives from the W.I.C. are in poorer condition than those from the V.O.C. The latter company was extremely bureaucratic with rigid specifications for the most minute details, including the manufacture of the ink used for company records. Interestingly, prescription of a standardized ink seems to have prevented the use of experimental, unstable ink formulations which so often resulted in the progression of ink corrosion in later years.

Preserving collections the size of The Nationaal Archief has become extremely challenging. Already, parts of the collection are no longer accessible to the general public for fear of irreparable damage incurred during handling of fragile papers. The deterioration caused by ink corrosion continues, with more records becoming increasingly inaccessible. Hopefully, research and education on the scope of this problem will ensure that these records remain available to the public.


Gerrit de Bruin & Ted Steemers

The National Archive, The Hague