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Creating Journals That Last

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In case you haven’t noticed lately, the archivist within me has been flaring up again. The subject of a more robust analog journal is something I’ve been pondering since I encountered Jeff Huang’s Designing pages to last mantra—although he meant web-pages, not physical things on paper such as a notebook or journal.

My wife bought her thermal Phomemo Printer to quickly and easily print and paste snapshots of life next to scribbles and drawings. The problem with a cheap thermal printer like the Phomemo is that it simply won’t last very long: after two years, most of the photos will have completely faded, just like your average supermarket receipt. On the other hand, it’s very fast: after a matter of seconds your beautifully black-and-white dithered photo is ready.

My own HP Sproket printer does not particularly outperform the Phomemo when it comes to life expectancy: the “ZINK” Zero Ink photo paper does print in color without needing any cartridges, similar to classic Polaroid cameras. It doesn’t have a strip where the ink resides, though, and instead relies on tiny parts that, depending on the heat, results in another color. On average, the internet claims these should last three to five years, at best. I’m a bit more optimistic: in my oldest journal, ten years ago, I can see the ZINK photos clearly fading, but it’s still at an early stage.

And the I came across the Canon QX10 that supposedly uses something called “dye sublimation” resulting in snapshots that last a hundred years. The QX10 device itself is the most expensive of the bunch, and the paper refills are $15 for 20 sheets, while 20 ZINK sheets are $10: both quite expensive!

But then I wondered: how long does it take for the fountain pen ink I use to start fading in my journals? That depends on multiple factors, such as paper and ink quality. The Fountain Pen Network forum collects ink fade tests and to my horror, some of these inks fade very quickly: after nine months, Noodler’s Baystate Blue and Rachmaninoff totally faded, while Noodler’s El Lawrence, Heart of Darkness, and La Reine Mauve remained (nearly) unchanged. That’s a lot of variation coming from just one brand.

Inks exist in different compositions: acrylic inks—that aren’t a great match for the average fountain pen—tend to resist time very well, pigment-based inks is your water-resistant staple at the cost of reduced color variance and required regular pen cleaning, and the most common dye-based inks are also the ones that tend not to last too long. Noodler has a series called “bulletproof inks” that uses a special formula to better bind with the cellulose of the paper: Heart of Darkness is a bulletproof one. Saturation might be a factor, but don’t forget to also take paper quality into account.

Should we really be caring about the permanence of our journals when all we want to do is journal? I’d be inclined to say no. That is, if you have another strategy set in motion: your backup strategy. I explained my journal digitization process before. By scanning and tagging pages as soon as a part or the whole notebook is filled, all of the above considerations stop being relevant: you’ve essentially “frozen” the inks, pictures, masking tape, pencil strokes in place. Even if they slowly but surely further deteriorate, your backup (and backup of the backup!) ensures you can whip out a copy of the original page at any time. Given that the scan software and settings are up to snuff…

It takes between six months and a year for me to fill one Leuchtturm A5 journal. That means any low quality Phomemo photo I added in the previous journal should still be visible. By the time I’ll scan and verify a backup of the book, the contents shouldn’t have started deteriorating, and I’ve never had this problem. Judging from the rate some of the inks fade, that’s perhaps surprising, but on the other hand, I keep the contents out of direct sunlight. The inks I use lately are (of course) Pilot Iroshizuku, LAMY T51, and occasionally De Atramentis' document ink.

A journal scan. Left: a Phomemo print of our cat. Right: a noodle pink wrapping paper that lost color during the scan.

As I’m flipping through my oldest journals, the only problems I’ve encountered so far are:

  • Disposable receipts from brick and mortar stores that I sometimes paste in to save. Those indeed tend to fade very quickly—within a few months.
  • Newspaper clippings. These discolor, not to the point of unreadability, but they do change.
  • Other very cheap clippings from packaging material or ads such as tea bag wrappings that also discolor and fade a little.
  • Organic material such as a squeezed blueberry (that was fun!). These pigments seem to slowly fade over the years as well.

My wife’s Phomemo is still relatively new so I’m interested to see whether or not that’s also going to be a problem.

Obviously, nothing lasts forever. But a simple digitize strategy will save your precious moments just a few decades longer. Until bit rot corrupts the files, that is. Luckily for me, it seems that Jeff’s design pages that last concept is much more important for webpages than for analog pages.

tags icon journaling archiving

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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