JAIC , Volume 39, Number 3, Article 1 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 3, Article 1 (pp. to )




In the 160 years of its existence, paper splitting has undergone a remarkable development. It began as a restorer's craft that mostly concerned the separation of double-sided artworks and has become a mass preservation treatment of impressive scale. The history of paper splitting provides an example of the enormous changes in professional attitudes and technological progress that have occurred in our field. Now presented as a preservation treatment for archive and library materials, modern paper splitting is slowly shedding its unhelpful image as a “miracle” treatment. Contemporary paper splitting compares favorably with other paper-strengthening methods—lamination, leaf-casting, lining, and resizing. Paper splitting still requires the manipulation of individual objects, but it is a versatile treatment adaptable to mass preservation and to the treatment of individual objects, in both cases using virtually the same methods and materials. Its efficiency has expanded considerably in the last decade. At Müller's laboratory, 30,000 paper sheets were treated in 1991, many of them by splitting (Müller 1991). The paper-splitting machine in Leipzig has a capacity of 2,000 to 5,000 sheets per day (Wächter 1999b).

Because paper splitting is an invasive process, it has inspired hesitation among conservators. It has become associated with a number of catch phrases that have been more likely to shape opinions than to educate. A. David Baynes-Cope (198991, 345) regarded paper splitting an “ultima ratio” treatment that, he feared, would be used “wantonly” by conservators not skilled enough in doing this treatment to avoid mistakes. He also pointed out that paper splitting contradicted the “principle of reversibility.” Gast (1993, 251) concluded that paper splitting is a “very drastic manipulation of the integrity of the object. The piece of paper with all its intrinsic value is … torn apart.”

While these concerns should not be brushed aside, especially when considering the example of the split Giacometti drawing, today's conservators are much more firmly rooted in their professional and ethical allegiances and, with the support of peer organizations and colleagues, are unlikely to engage in haphazard activities. The long-established “principle of reversibility” cited by A. David Baynes-Cope has been recognized as untenable because many well-accepted appropriate conservation treatments are, in fact, not reversible. The Code of Ethics of the American Institute for Conservation sensibly eliminated the reversibility clause in its 1994 revision and replaced it with the more appropriate requirement that the conservator “must strive to select methods … that, to the best of current knowledge, do not adversely affect cultural property” (AIC 2000, 24).

With the “principle of reversibility” no longer the focus of concern, there still remains the difficult, unanswered, and perhaps not soon to be answered question about what types of materials can undergo splitting. While the majority of materials that are strengthened by splitting today are irreplaceable, they are, in general, nonrare library materials that would not have any further actual future use without paper splitting. When Müller (1970, 642) speaks of paper splitting as an “ultima ratio” treatment, he considers it a rescue measure that provides a new life for deteriorated paper documents and improves their legibility and stability for subsequent microfilming. While a convincing case is easily made, for example, for the strengthening of brittle newspapers by splitting, whether rare and significant artifacts should be strengthened in this way is a more difficult question to answer and perhaps cannot be reduced to one single set of guidelines applicable to an entire category of damaged artifacts. Helmut Bansa and Monika Gast (1999, 302), for example, caution: “Paper splitting is, considered overall, of such substantial influence on the integrity of the object, that its use for the treatment of precious and rare objects should be a rare exception and should be limited to those that would otherwise be lost and that would be similarly compromised through other treatments.” Müller and Wächter like to speak of paper splitting as a originalgetreue Restaurierung—meaning that this treatment restores the object to a functional state that is true to the original state (Müller 1970, 642; Wächter 1989). It is one of the notable characteristics of paper splitting that while it is a very invasive structural process, it can produce very subtle and aesthetically pleasing results. This characteristic might explain why some of the statements evaluating paper splitting tend to focus on either the structural aspects of the treatment or the final effect achieved.

Extensive discussions have centered around the use of paper splitting for the preservation of deteriorated iron gall ink manuscripts (Banik and Weber 1999). Some conservators today regard paper splitting a valuable method for the preservation of severely damaged iron gall ink manuscripts (Müller 1999a; Wächter 1999a), but no one would consider this treatment indiscriminately for every artifact, as is evident in the discussion surrounding the future preservation of Johann Sebastian Bach's music manuscripts at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preuβischer Kulturbesitz (Büning 1997; Fuchs et al. 2000; Kolbe and Banik 2000). These manuscripts were treated in the early 20th century by silking and subsequently degraded rapidly until they reached an alarming state of fragility that has caused the library to launch a large-scale investigation into their preservation—one of the many suggestions being that the manuscripts be strengthened by splitting.

Questions regarding the efficacy of the process and long-term stability of treated objects have been intensively studied, and some still remain to be further investigated; for example, the effectiveness of deacidification treatments on papers previously strengthened by splitting, parameters and directives concerning the repeatability of the treatment, and the long-term physical performance of materials strengthened by splitting. It will also be imperative to see further reports with regard to emergency treatment directives for strengthened papers in case of flood disasters. The need for a new strengthening treatment that ensures increased access to brittle paper artifacts is, however, clear: “Early indications are that, rather than decreasing the demand to consult originals, wide dissemination of digital surrogates has created fresh demand for use of primary sources in their original media. The new demand has placed a greater burden on research libraries to preserve as well as to serve artifactual collections” (Smith 1999). Several German libraries are having parts of their collections treated by paper splitting.

While Müller and Wächter have taught workshops on paper splitting and a few conservators have become well versed in the technique, it requires more than attending one workshop to learn splitting well. Wächter (1989) writes: “Paper splitting is the most demanding technique for the restorer. … Only … years of training … can guarantee that every piece of material threatened with decay can be restored to its original state. This kind of specialized technology may be mastered by restorers with many years of practical experience.”

Opinions on paper splitting still diverge, but it has undeniably found a place within library and archives preservation. It is an exceptional treatment that allows embrittled paper artifacts to be stabilized so they can be made accessible for use. Conservators, who today have a choice of different strengthening or other treatment methods, may have to develop new criteria for deciding whether a single artifact or a whole group of artifacts should undergo the process.