So You Want to Write for Future Archeologists

It’s amazing what you can stumble across. The last thing I expected to see that summer day in 1976 was a 13th Century copy of the Magna Carta in the rotunda of the US Capitol building. Yet, there it was, on display, lent to the US for the Bicentennial. It looked surprisingly well for a document over 700 years old. It’s ironic that I ended up seeing the Magna Carta and not the US Declaration of Independence, though the condition of the latter after 200 years might have proven a disappointment. By 1820, the Declaration of Independence had become so faded that Secretary of State John Q. Adams commissioned facsimiles. Yet, in a county courthouse, I’ve seen records nearly 200 years old that were in better condition than the Declaration of Independence was after a mere 44 years. The life span of ink and what it’s written on can vary widely.

Of course, environmental conditions affect the longevity of the written word. Who would have expected the letters of a Roman soldier in 1st Century Britain to still exist after two thousand years? Still, if we want our words to last, we can take steps to improve the odds.

Paper

The paper we use makes a big difference. For centuries, paper in the Western World was made from rags, and the results have held up surprisingly well. The shift to wood pulp lowered paper costs, but the lignin from the wood caused yellowing and brittleness over time. Changes in processing wood pulp further lowered costs, but also left an acid residue in the paper. This accelerated yellowing and brittleness. I have a book printed in 1979 with pages that are already yellowing and have an acrid odor, and I suspect wood pulp paper with residual acid is the culprit.

These days, most paper manufacturers use a different process for wood pulp, which results in mostly acid-free paper. Acid-free wood pulp paper should have a life span of about 500 to 1,000 years.

Rag based papers, today usually made from cotton, have a longer life span. You can find bibles printed several hundred years ago on rag based paper, with pages that have hardly yellowed, if at all. They also tend to be more expensive than wood pulp paper. There are varying percentages of cotton to wood pulp, with the higher percentages of cotton having greater longevity. Some higher percentages of cotton may have acid residue, so you have to make sure that it’s acid free.

There’s even ANSI and ISO standards for paper for documentary purposes. ANSI Z39.48-1992 and ISO 9706 covers paper for long-term use, and is marked with an infinity symbol. ISO 11108 meets the specifications of ISO 9706, but is stronger, and is mostly made from cotton, hemp, or flax.

For someone who wants to take up journaling, this means you can go to your favorite department store, find a low cost bound lined journal marked acid free, and know it should be good for several hundred years. Even if it’s not marked as acid free, a new journal will likely be made with relatively acid free wood pulp paper, and maybe good for about 500 years. If you want something to last longer, you look for a journal with pages that conform with ANSI Z39.48-1992 and ISO 9706, or ISO 11108. But if you want to just give journaling a try, a low cost bound lined journal will last longer than the old acidic wood pulp paper of a few decades ago.

Ink

Ink is another matter. You’d think that all you’d have to do is to pick up any old pen and start writing. Well…maybe. Ink longevity varies greatly. I’ve seen some records, written in ball point no more than fifty or sixty years ago, that show noticeable fading. Next to it would be records of the same age, written in another ballpoint pen, that showed no fading at all. Last year I had to rewrite notes I’d jotted down with a cheap gel pen that wrote well, but a little water completely bled it away. One of my favorite ballpoint pens turns from black to blue in a period of months, perhaps from environmental conditions. If we want to make sure what we write in a journal lasts through the years, what do we do?

Go with a pen that uses archival ink. Unfortunately, I only know of four standards for documentary inks: ISO 12757 for ballpoint pens; ISO 14145 for roller ball pens; ISO 27668 for gel pens; and specific formulations of ferro-gallic ink required in some countries. That doesn’t mean such standards don’t exist, only that I don’t know of them if they do. I’ve made some assumptions and heard world-of-mouth speculations, and seen fade tests, but that’s not the same as a tested ink. As a rule of thumb, black ink tends to hold up better against fading than other colors, but as my experience with the cheap gel pen showed, some are easily washed away.

Ballpoint, Felt Point, Gel, and Roller Ball Pens

For standard pens, I’ve used those that bill themselves as archival quality. I’ve had good results with the Uni-Ball Signo 207 and 307. These are a line of gel pens billed as fade and tamper resistant. They are a tad pricey, and the pens run out quicker than I like. It’s possible to find refills, which lowers the price, and they do write smooth. The Sharpie Fine Point pen (not the marker), a felt point pen, bills itself as water and fade resistant, and it does write smooth, and there are likely more archival pens than these. The Uni-Ball Signo 207 and 307, and the Sharpie Fine Point pen just happen to be three I’ve used, and all three are common enough that you can probably find them at your favorite department store.

That’s really all you need to get started journaling: A blank book of acid-free paper and an archival pen. A check at a department store shows both together can cost less than $15 US.

Fountain Pens and Fountain Pen Ink

If you wish to step up to fountain pens, then you have other inks available. This costs more to get started (a good bit more if you’re not careful), and introduces other considerations. For one thing, fountain pen inks are usually dyes which color the paper. That’s because pigment based inks can easily clog fountain pens. Unfortunately, many dyes can wash out and some can fade. There are some pigment based fountain pen inks, but they tend to be “dirty,” meaning you have to frequently clean your pen. There are also some ferro-gallic fountain pen inks, though they can be hard on pens, too. To use bottled inks instead of cartridges, you’ll have to invest in what’s called a converter. This lets you fill fountain pens with bottled ink instead of using a cartridge.

If you happen to have a vintage fountain pen, keep in mind that it might not tolerate modern inks. As a rule of thumb, only use inks a vintage fountain pen was designed to use.

Fountain pens also write differently than more modern types. I came along when fountain pens were still common, and like to use them for the nostalgia factor and for how they write. Others may prefer more modern pens. If you’ve never used a fountain pen before and happen to see a Pilot Varsity in your favorite department store, you might want to give it a try. The Pilot Varsity is a relatively inexpensive disposable fountain pen, and can let you see if you like it before spending money on a refillable fountain pen.

Fountain pens also tend to require periodic cleaning. Adding convertors and bottled inks adds to the muss and fuss. There’s a reason I use vinyl gloves when filling mine.

While some fountain pens are pricey, there are also good inexpensive ones. I’ve had good results with the Platinum Preppy. These are inexpensive fountain pens, which is just the thing for using with “dirty” inks.

For archival fountain pen inks, things tend to get speculative. Carbon black based inks tend to be archival (most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in carbon black based ink), and there are some formulated for fountain pens. I’ve used Platinum Carbon Black, which is water resistant when dry, but it’s not the only carbon black fountain pen ink on the market. All carbon black fountain pen inks are “dirty,” so it requires frequent cleaning or you could have a seriously clogged pen on your hands.

If you opt to try the Platinum Preppy, Platinum also offers its Carbon Black ink in cartridges. In the long run they’re more expensive than a convertor and bottled ink, but cartridges are convenient.

I’ve also used Noodler’s Black. Noodler’s “bulletproof” (meaning tamper resistant) inks work by a chemical reaction with cellulose. Although Noodler’s Black is my favorite fountain pen ink, Noodler’s inks tends to be controversial among fountain pen aficionados. Many, including myself, have used Noodler’s inks without any problems, while others say they have issues with them and that they harmed their pens. Do some research and draw your own conclusions. If you want to try Noodler’s but, after some research, feel hesitant, use it a cheap, modern, fountain pen and see if you like it. Remember, if you have a vintage fountain pen, only use the ink it was designed for.

Are the Noodler’s “bulletproof” inks archival? They’re billed as such, and, if you write on a media containing cellulose, they are water and UV resistant, as well as resistant against bleach, alcohols, and solvents. Is this archival in the museum sense of the word? Don’t know.

I haven’t tried ferro-gallic inks formulated for fountain pens. Various formulations are required in some countries for things such as signing documents. For nearly 2,000 years, ferro-gallic inks was the ink most commonly used in the Western world. Until the 19th and 20th Centuries, people tended to make their own, which led to variable qualities. Some inks were so acidic that they ate through the media they were written on. Others, as in the instance of the Magna Carta, have held up very well. The Codex Sinaiticus, a bible written in ferro-gallic ink in the 4th Century AD, remains readable. That said, the fading of the ink on the Declaration of Independence gives me pause. True, the Declaration of Independence was originally displayed exposed to air and sunlight, but it still raises a huge question mark with me. Then again, those records nearly 200 years old that I saw in a courthouse were likely written in ferro-gallic ink, and have held up well.

This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of fountain pen inks that might stand the test of time. Be sure to do your own research. Who knows what you might find?

Dip Pens

Going to dip pens opens up the door to India Ink, long considered archival. India Ink is a carbon black based ink containing shellac as a binder, and is waterproof when dry. It will also gum up fountain pens, so unless a bottle of India Ink says it was formulated for fountain pens, only use it with dip pens.

There are two problems with dip pens: finding a modern nib for writing, and constant need to dip it into ink. I’ve tinkered with dip pens some, only to learn some weeks ago I was dipping them too deep into the ink, but haven’t had a chance to try again. These were vintage writing nibs, of the type common before the world moved on to fountain and ballpoint pens. Modern dip nibs tend to be for artwork or calligraphy, and I haven’t tried those.

It’s possible to make dip pens from reeds and goose and turkey feathers, but it tends to be a bit involved, and they require frequent maintenance. Pen knives were originally designed for such. There’s a reason people moved to metal nibs when they became cheap and plentiful.

I also haven’t ended up with inky fingers, but such was often the case among scribes. Just be aware that dip pens can be messy.

Of course, unless it’s a glass dip pen, reed, or quill, you’ll need a nib holder. Be aware that there are different size holders for different type nibs. If you want to try dip pens, be sure to do your research first.

India Ink is the only one that I’m familiar with. There are, of course, ferro-gallic inks and there are likely others with archival qualities. Remember to do your research.

This should be enough to point you in – What’s that? What about technical pens? Well, if you insist.

Technical Pens

Technical pens produce an inked line of precise width, and were mostly used in drafting, mapping, and maybe artwork back in the pre-CAD/CAM days. I used technical pens decades ago, on plastic for drafting and plastic coated media. Today, they are likely used by artists, and some hold-outs who prefer the old way of drafting to CAD/CAM.

Technical pens are fragile and clog easily. Because we used several different sizes during the same session, we kept those in active use in a special humidor storage cylinder. They require frequently cleaning with a special solution. We used an ultrasonic cleaner for that purpose. The pens themselves tend to be expensive. You also have to hold them perpendicular to the paper, which means they lend themselves more to drafting than to writing.

If you ever come across a drawing triangle with a slightly raised edge, it was designed to be used with technical pens. If you try to ink with regular triangles, curves, templates, and straight edges, you end up with the ink running under the edge. We used to improvise by taping pennies or sticking reinforcements for hole-punched pages on one side. There was also a gadget for making indentations in templates, which accomplished the same purpose.

I’ve seen exactly one reference to using technical pens for archival work, an aside from someone who worked in a museum. You have to use ink suitable for technical pens, and don’t know the type they used. I have no idea if the ink we used for drafting and mapping would be considered archival.

Really, having once used technical pens day in and day out, I’d be reluctant to use them for journaling. I liked them, but they are more expensive and require a good bit of maintenance.

Final Thoughts on Paper and Pens

If you’re interested in journaling that will have a good chance of lasting through the ages, hopefully all this will point you in the right direction. Be sure to do your own research and not just rely on something you’ve seen here.

Something you’ll find is that artists run into the same problem. Obviously, it does no good to create a work of art only for it to fade away, and some techniques require ink that’s waterproof. Artists’ observations on archival quality paper and inks is worth noting.

If you’re new to journaling, I really recommend going slow. Look for an inexpensive bound, lined, journal, and a modern type archival pen and start there. Later, if you like it and want to try other types of journals and pens, go for it. No one wants to buy a lot of things that they end up never using. Or you might be happy staying with inexpensive journals and archival pens that you find your favorite department store. That’s one of the beauties of journaling. You might be writing something that will be read centuries later, all without spending a lot of money. We don’t know how much it cost the Roman soldier Masclus to write those letters found about 2,000 years later, but it probably wasn’t a lot.