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The Care And Preservation Of Documents

By: Katherine Koppenhaver, CQDE
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Most documents consist of paper which is treated to handle ink for writing or printing. Paper is a fragile material that can be damaged by a host of agents such as fire, water, insects, molds, chemicals, sunlight and dust. Even body fluids can injure papers when they are handled excessively.

Improper or careless handling of documents can inflict serious damage. Papers are damaged by folding, tearing, or crumbling, as well as staining from rust, food, soil and grease. Pins, staples, glue and other fastenings devices also injure paper. Erasing information from documents damages paper fibers and the finishes on paper.


Valuable documents should be handled with care. Wear white cotton gloves or latex gloves when handling sensitive documents, especially those that well be tested for fingerprints. Documents should be held carefully by the edges to avoid soiling.

Keep originals in a protected environment when not being examined, away from heat, strong light, and moisture. Do not file valuable documents with other papers in an ordinary file folder. They should be stored in a friendly environment for paper, one that is cool and dry. Ideally, important documents should be stored in a protective envelope in a fireproof safe or a fireproof file cabinet.

Documents should never be marked or altered in anyway. Clients sometimes think they are being helpful by circling words or highlighting them with a color marker. Do not highlight key points. Do not write on documents. Writing on a sheet of paper on top of documents indents the paper. Do not fold or crease documents even along existing fold lines as folding destroys paper fibers. Keep documents flat. Use large envelopes to store and transport documents. Remember the old computer cards that carried the warning, DO NOT FOLD, SPINDLE OR MUTILATE.

Keep all potential hazards away from important documents. Do not eat or drink when handling original evidence. Avoid coffee, ketchup, smudges, sneezing, liquid speech and burns from cigarettes on documents as well.

If it is necessary to hold documents flat for photographing, a non-sticky tape can be used that is completely and easily removed. Non-sticky paper measuring gauges can be placed on a document for determining size when photographing. Photographs should be made with and without the measuring gauge for use in court cases.

Documents should be placed in clear manilla folders or larger paper envelopes for safekeeping. Do not use plastic envelopes that can stick to the documents. Do not write on the envelope after the documents have been placed inside. Address the envelope before inserting the material.

Documents that are mailed should be sent in a secure manner. Use a mailing system that tracks the documents such as registered mail, Federal Express or United Parcel Service. Certified mail should not be used in place of registered mail when any documents of value are posted.


A chain of custody form bearing the signatures with the date of all people who handle the documents and are responsible for them should be maintained with the documents. Each party handling the documents is accountable for their integrity. A copy of this form should also be kept with your file in your office. It will act as a receipt to you from the person who has taken charge of the documents in case the documents are misplaced or lost. A solid chain of custody maintains an uninterrupted history of what happened to the evidence to assure that it has not been altered or compromised. Investigators must take steps to protect documents entrusted to their care.


If destructive testing is necessary, written permission must be obtained from the court. Destructive testing includes iodine fuming, spraying the document with various chemical such as ninhydrin and extracting materials using a small hole punch or hypodermic needle to test the ink or paper. Documentation through photography must be maintained to show the changes to the document. Any surreptitious testing will not be condoned and could cost your client the case.


Many damaged documents can be restored if they are handled properly. Charred documents should be handled very carefully. Spray them with an acetate spray. Slide a sheet of paper under the charred pieces, if possible or lay the charred pieces on cotton. Try not to disturb the pieces.

Documents that have been damaged by water, fire, smoke and soot can sometimes be restored. This work is done by a conservator. A conservator can wash soil from paper, add moisture to brittle documents and remove glue from damaged documents. This work should never be attempted by an amateur.


Documents are fragile and require special handling. Not only must documents be kept in their original condition, but a chain of custody must be maintained to ensure the integrity of the documents. If everyone takes the necessary precautions to ensure the integrity of the documents, evidence will be properly preserved for court proceedings.

Katherine Mainolfi Koppenhaver, a Board Certified Document Examiner, has been a document examiner for the past 40 years and has testified in court and deposition over 550 times. She has an international clientele. Her book, "Attorney's Guide to Document Examination," was published by Greenwood Press in 2002. Humana Press has recently released her latest book, Forensic Document Examination, Principles and Practice. She has a support staff enabling her to handle cases in a timely manner.

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