Flattening and Storing an Old, Fragile Diploma

Dear Donia,
How do I flatten and store an old, fragile diploma?

old diploma

Q. Dear Donia,

I have my grandfather’s high school diploma from 1907. It has been rolled up for many years and seems to be fairly fragile. Is there anyway I can unroll and flatten it so that I could have it framed or stored flat? Thank you, Margaret

A. Dear Margaret,

Diplomas can be tricky things, particularly if you aren't sure if the diploma is on paper or parchment. If the diploma is on paper, you can carefully and slowly humidify it but if it is parchment, leave it alone and contact a conservator. If you aren't sure what it is, contact a conservator. The best way to find a reputable conservator in your area is to consult the American Institute for Conservation's "Find a Conservator" page. Simply put in your zip code and select a specialty (in this instance you would pick "Book in Paper"). If you have never worked with a conservator before, be sure to read the information that AIC supplies as it will make for a better experience all around. I hope you are able to find someone!

If you know the diploma is definitely on paper you can carefully humidify and flatten it. Flattening paper is a delicate process. The safest way to add moisture to paper is to leave it for a few hours in a tightly closed space with a source of humidity. There are several ways to make a humidification chamber but the one described below is inexpensive and the components are easy to find. 

Please note: Exposing paper to high humidity for prolonged periods is usually not recommended because of the potential for mold growth. However, a few hours in the humidification chamber will do no harm if the artifact is allowed to dry soon after it has been unrolled
Necessary Supplies: 

  • A large, long, shallow bin with a tight-fitting lid (for example, an under-the-bed storage bin)
  • Nylon or fiberglass window screening (easily found at your local hardware store)
  • Spun polyester—Hollytex, my preferred spun polyester, can be purchased by the yard from Talas (product number 3249 would be the best choice).
  • Begin the humidification process early in the day. It may take several hours, and objects should never be left in the chamber overnight. 

Using a plastic bin:

  • Line the bottom of the bin with a damp towel (use cold water). Any excess water should be removed from the towel by wringing it out. 
  • Place 4-5 layers of nylon window screening on top of the damp towel.
  • Place a piece of spun polyester on top of the screening.
  • Place the rolled or folded items on top of the polyester.
  • Fasten the lid. 
  • Wait. Check the items after about an hour. If they are not completely relaxed, replace lid, wait another hour, and check again. Repeat until the items have relaxed.

Do not leave objects in a humidity chamber for more than eight hours as this can lead to mold growth.  
Necessary Supplies: 

  • Sheets of clean blotting paper—10 or 30 point blotter paper can be purchased by the sheet from Talas
  • Spun polyester 
  • Stiff, smooth material like Plexiglas or Masonite the same size or larger than the blotters
  • Weights such as bricks

Remove the relaxed photos from the humidification chamber a couple at a time, replacing the lid each time. Place the items on a piece of dry blotting paper lined with a piece of spun polyester and unroll it. Handle items carefully: damp paper can be fragile, especially if it is already torn. As each artifact is unrolled, it should be placed in a flattening/drying package (see diagram below). If using wood products for the top board, it must be flat and smooth, without any warping. Weight with bricks, but not too many to prevent damage to the emulsion layer. Use just enough to provide some restraint but not so many that would crush the paper. Depending on the size of blotter you are using, 2-3 should suffice. Leave the photos weighted until they are dry. Several photos can be dried in a stack with blotters between each. 

  • Brick
  • Plexi/Masonite board
  • Blotter
  • Hollytex
  • Photos
  • Hollytex
  • Blotter
  • Level, smooth tabletop

Thank you for your question, and please don't hesitate to ask if you have any more.