Transparent papers need you!

For the past six months I have been working on a challenging yet fascinating one-year conservation research fellowship at The National Archives on transparent papers. Today I’d like to tell you how readers at The National Archives are providing valuable information for this project via the Readers’ Transparent Paper Survey.

Questionnaire and collection box for the Readers' Transparent Paper Survey

Questionnaires and the questionnaire collection box in the Document Reading Room for the Readers' Transparent Paper Survey

For the purposes of my project, transparent papers are defined as those papers for which transparency was vital for its intended role. For example, maps, overlays, copies of artistic designs, and engineering or architectural plans are relevant while pages of text on thin, and consequently transparent, paper are not.

The majority of transparent papers within The National Archives’ collection are likely to be fragile, torn, and creased. This situation is not limited to The National Archives because it arises from the production method as well as the often heavy handling and poor storage experienced if the records were working documents. It is an aim of The National Archives that the accessibility of its records is maintained without causing damage to the records. To prevent further damage to fragile transparent papers during access-related handling, conservation is frequently required.

Examples of a transparent paper overlay for a map, engineering plan, and design for a shoulder decoration.

Images of transparent papers from left to right: An overlay for a map, a fragmented engineering plan, and a design for a shoulder decoration

In order to make well-informed decisions regarding the preservation of transparent papers it is critical to know about the location, quantity, type, popularity, and condition of the transparent papers at The National Archives. Little of this information is currently recorded so the Readers’ Transparent Paper Survey was developed to gather evidence.

A short questionnaire is available in the reading rooms for readers to complete when transparent paper is among their requested documents. Completed questionnaires are placed in the yellow survey collection boxes that are also in the reading rooms. I collect these questionnaires fortnightly and input the data into a spreadsheet. The data will be evaluated in July before the end of the fellowship.

Questionnaires and the questionnaire collection box in the Map and Large Document Reading Room

Questionnaires and the questionnaire collection box for the Readers' Transparent Paper Survey in the Map and Large Document Reading Room

The Readers’ Transparent Paper Survey is providing vital information about the collection. Consequently, every completed questionnaire is important. I thank all who have taken part so far and look forward to receiving many more questionnaires during the course of the survey.


  1. Mike Rossiter says:

    This is very important. Last year I looked at records of Convoys . Escort vessels recorded their attacks against submarines on clear film overlays. They are now very fragile, but provide a unique record of tactics in a crucial area of the war. Cartainly an aera for the conservation staff to look at.

    1. Helen Wilson says:

      Thank you for your comment Mike. It is good to hear of your example of records made from transparent materials being of such high value. I have forwarded your comment to a colleague who is working to locate materials within the collection, such as the clear film you mentioned, that are known to suffer rapid degradation. By knowing more about the collection the preservation of the collection can be better planned.

  2. David Matthew says:

    I had the opposite situation where the uncatalogued tracing was not recorded in the catalogue (listing what was on the spine) but well-preserved inside the volume.

    1. Helen Wilson says:

      Thank you for your comment David. It is always interesting to hear of transparent papers that are in good condition as I generally see ones that aren’t as I’m based in the Collection Care Department! In a recent survey I found transparent papers in a wide range of conditions. Some showed no physical damage, like the one you saw, and very little overall discolouration while others were creased, torn, and fragmented. Despite showing little physical damage these papers may still be very fragile and at high risk of damage through handling.

      As you found, transparent papers are not always noted in the catalogue which makes locating transparent papers in the collection problematic. Consequently, it is particularly important for this project that users of The National Archives complete my questionnaire when they do find a transparent paper.

  3. Michael Dodd says:

    As a Volunteer at TNA, I worked on the WWI War Diaries, that have now been digitised, and came across many maps/overlays in them.
    Some were in a brittle state due to the type of material used as well as all the handling, but others were looking in very good condition, and gave you an idea of their purpose.
    These overlays included Artillery Fireplans for co-ordination with the advance of ground troops attacking enemy trenches/strong points with a “creeping barrage” that moved infront of them, while other some other assets enfiladed those trenches/strong points, and help minimise casualties.

    1. Helen Wilson says:

      Thank you Michael for your comment and your time as a Volunteer. It’s good to hear that you have also found a wide range of conditions of transparent papers and to hear more about the information that they hold.

  4. Jean Pound says:

    If you would like to know about the manufacture of transparent paper, I have a book specifically about ‘Transparent Paper Ltd, Bury’. My father worked for this company from leaving school until his retirement and I have some information from his memoirs which may be useful or of interest.

    1. Helen Wilson says:

      Thank you Jean. I am very interested in both the book and your father’s memoirs. I’ve found little specific information about the production of transparent papers so far and expect that these sources will provide much more detail which will benefit the project.

    2. Gert Klapp says:

      Hello Jean, I am fr.o.m. Sweden and was working in Transparent Paper Art departement in the autome 1962. Love to hear from your book and dad’s experiance of his work there. I am writing my biography now and would like to have some more details about TP in Bury.
      Thank you and best regards
      Gert Klapp

  5. […] Readers are contributing to our understanding of these papers and their distribution via the Readers’ Transparent Paper Survey, as I hope this short report will […]

  6. Thomas Wood says:

    Is the transparent paper survey still open, I’ve recently come across a couple of documents containing transparent papers that were in a very poor state of preservation.

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