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PhD on preserving precious paper

Marcus Butler

2 April 2015: What do Japanese tissue paper and a forklift have in common? They both played a role in research undertaken by University of Canberra PhD graduate Somayeh (Mona) Soleymani.

Dr Soleymani graduated today with her thesis that examined the effects of colourants on tissue paper, which is commonly used in the repair and conservation of books, manuscripts and other irreplaceable documents.

Dr Soleymani believes she may be the first person in Australia to gain a PhD in paper conservation, saying the process is vital to the long term survival of our cultural heritage in libraries and archives. Her research involved applying techniques normally reserved for forensic analysis in assessing the role of dyes, paint and other colourants on Japanese tissue paper.

To do this, she needed access to a machine which could age her paper samples.

Dr Soleymani found an ageing chamber at the National Archives of Australia and was able to borrow it for her research. The machine was taken from the archives and transported via forklift where it was then installed in the forensics labs at the University of Canberra.

Her paper samples were treated with various colouring materials, then rapidly aged by the machine to show what impact they may have on original documents over long periods of time.

"We found there is a real need to study the long-term properties of Japanese mending papers in a scientific way rather than just relying on practical experience," Dr Soleymani said.

"Various groups of colourants, such as dyes, paints and inks, are used in paper conservation, but they perform differently when exposed to environmental agents and ageing in museum exhibitions or storage," she added.

Dr Soleymani said conservators have been handing down the knowledge and techniques to repair and preserve paper in a process similar to artisans or apprentices, using the experience of past masters, but there is little scientific evidence on the processes.

"I believe my study has opened the way for further research to benefit cultural heritage and the work of the paper conservation community. Disciplines such as forensics can also help us to improve our knowledge in heritage materials conservation."

Dr Soleymani is hoping to continue her work as a researcher in heritage materials conservation and museum studies, while looking to expand her skills as an academic lecturer. She would also love to be able to work with medieval manuscripts.

"My dream would be being able to work on the earliest surviving copy of the Shahnamehor the Book of Kings by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, which dates back to 1217 CE and resides today in the National Central Library (Florence, Italy)," Dr Soleymani said.

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