Realia (library science)
In library classification
Library classification
A library classification is a system of coding and organizing documents or library materials according to their subject and allocating a call number to that information resource...

 systems, the term realia refers to three-dimensional objects from real life such as coins, tools, and textiles, that do not easily fit into the orderly categories of printed material. They can be either man-made (artifacts, tools, utensils, etc.) or naturally occurring (specimens, samples, etc.), usually borrowed, purchased, or received as donation by a teacher, library
In a traditional sense, a library is a large collection of books, and can refer to the place in which the collection is housed. Today, the term can refer to any collection, including digital sources, resources, and services...

, or museum
A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. Most large museums are located in major cities...

 for use in classroom instruction or in exhibits. Archival and manuscript
A manuscript or handwrite is written information that has been manually created by someone or some people, such as a hand-written letter, as opposed to being printed or reproduced some other way...

 collections often receive items of memorabilia such as badges, emblems, insignias, jewelry, leather goods, needlework, etc., in connection with gifts of personal papers. Most government or institutional archive
An archive is a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located. Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime, and are kept to show the function of an organization...

s reject gifts of non-documentary objects unless they have a documentary value. When accepting large bequests of mixed objects they normally have the donors sign legal documents giving permission to the archive to destroy, exchange, sell or dispose in any way those objects which, according to the best judgement of the archivist, are not manuscripts (which can include typescripts or printouts) or are not immediately useful for understanding the manuscripts.

Treatment in libraries

Most libraries usually have a very well written, legally tight, acquisitions policy which rejects beforehand any object which is not some kind of document. There are some exceptions. Children's libraries sometimes have a toy collection, whose individual items are lent out after being cataloged as realia, or under a more specific material designation such as toy, or game. Some large libraries can have a special mandate of keeping objects related to a literary collection or very large libraries can have a public relations department which can find museum objects useful for enhancing or promoting the general collection. Such a library is more likely to prize realia for their associations with writers, subjects, or themes in the library's collection rather than for their own intrinsic worth, artistic merit, historical significance, or scientific value. Examples might include a feather pen believed to have been owned by John Hancock
John Hancock
John Hancock was a merchant, statesman, and prominent Patriot of the American Revolution. He served as president of the Second Continental Congress and was the first and third Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts...

, lead type from Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin
Dr. Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat...

's printing press, or a collection of Vietnam era canteens, mess kits, uniforms, combat boots, etc. used in an "hands on" exhibit for children to illustrate the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...


Within the very restricted domain of cataloging rules in the field of Library and information science
Library and information science
Library and information science is a merging of the two fields library science and information science...

 the term "realia" is used to describe those mass produced objects which incorporate documents or significant amounts of text (such as world globes, decks of quiz cards, board games), but which have a format which makes it hard to incorporate them in the general collection or to describe them easily in the catalog
Library catalog
A library catalog is a register of all bibliographic items found in a library or group of libraries, such as a network of libraries at several locations...

. Special cataloguing rules are available to describe these objects.

Objects of realia, due to their diverse and compound nature, pose unique preservation challenges for libraries and archives. Unlike books and other traditional library materials, the artifactual value of these materials is key. In fact, when such items are unaccompanied by written documentation, as is often the case, the intellectual value sought by most library collections is often uncertain.

“We have a lot of hair,” Saundra Taylor of the Lilly Library
Lilly Library
The Lilly Library, located on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, is a large rare book and manuscript library in the United States.-History:...

 told ‘’The New York Times’’, explaining that realia such as locks of hair, toys, and inkwells, are often the unsolicited accompaniment to prized acquisitions of personal papers or book collections. Some libraries prize their realia, actively preserving and exhibiting it while others simply keep it out of light and hope for the best.

Often, realia are seen as a nuisance, difficult not only to catalog, but to care for. Unlike book
A book is a set or collection of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of hot lava, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is called a leaf or leaflet, and each side of a leaf is called a page...

s, which are mostly cellulose
Cellulose is an organic compound with the formula , a polysaccharide consisting of a linear chain of several hundred to over ten thousand β linked D-glucose units....

 (paper, boards, natural fibers) and occasionally leather
Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin, often split. Its most common use was as a material for writing on, for documents, notes, or the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is limed but not tanned; therefore, it is very...

, realia are often the sum of many parts. One exasperating group of items that might find their way into library collections are textiles and handcrafts: hair, needlework, clothing .

Hair, wool, and silk

Little research has been conducted regarding the preservation and conservation of human hair within the context of the archival world. However, much is known of the chemical structure and behavior of human hair, thanks in large part to the cosmetology industry; there is certainly a great deal of scholarship surrounding the care of other protein-based fibers, silk
Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The best-known type of silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity...

 and wool
Wool is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and certain other animals, including cashmere from goats, mohair from goats, qiviut from muskoxen, vicuña, alpaca, camel from animals in the camel family, and angora from rabbits....


Loose, braided, tied lovingly in silk ribbons, hair was memorialized especially by the Victorians. Often, hair would be encased within a glass or woven with metallic threads, paired with a metal setting to be worn as mourning
Mourning is, in the simplest sense, synonymous with grief over the death of someone. The word is also used to describe a cultural complex of behaviours in which the bereaved participate or are expected to participate...

 jewelry, a memento of a friend or loved one. Hairwork, an art still practiced today by the Victorian Hairwork Society, was a popular needlework
Needlework is a broad term for the handicrafts of decorative sewing and textile arts. Anything that uses a needle for construction can be called needlework...

 method, often resulting in 2-dimensional mourning wreaths and graveyard scenes, worked in hair on a fabric ground. Wool, because of its ability to wick moisture and resist flame, was commonly used in Western textiles throughout history, and might present itself in the form of bedlinens, clothing, and needlework.

Hair (both human and animal) mainly consists of a protein, keratin, the fibers of which give the inner core of hair a great deal of strength. Hydrogen bonds and disulfide bonds link the chained amino acids that make up hair. Hydrogen bonds break and re-form easily on exposure to water, but disulfide bonds (responsible for curl, among other properties), can be broken only via chemical means. Under examination with a microspectrophotometer, scientists have discovered that high heat, UV exposure, and even artificial lighting can be quite damaging to human hair.
Wool, too, suffers in the sun—the fleece of sheep allowed to spend too much time in the sun before shearing accepts little dye when sheared from their backs, compared to their underbellies, as a result of disulfide bonds broken by UV light. Heat and a wide variety of insects, too, are deleterious to woolen textiles. Wool has a high resistance, however, to fungi and bacteria, provided it is free from sizing
Sizing or size is any one of numerous specific substances that is applied to or incorporated in other material, especially papers and textiles, to act as a protecting filler or glaze....

 and soaps; further, wool can absorb three times its volume in water and requires a bit of humidity to remain viable.

Silk, another protein-rich fiber, is the most problematic of textiles. Often “weighted” with metallic salts to produce a nicer drape in clothing, silks (especially black silks and silks used in trimmings) rarely hold up to washing and repeated handling. Unlike other proteins, silk is not flame retardant. It quickly becomes brittle when kept in hot, dry conditions, and is highly susceptible to rot when in warm, humid climes.

Compound textiles

Cellulose fibers, like cotton
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The botanical purpose of cotton fiber is to aid in seed dispersal....

, linen
Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Linen is labor-intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather....

, and hemp
Hemp is mostly used as a name for low tetrahydrocannabinol strains of the plant Cannabis sativa, of fiber and/or oilseed varieties. In modern times, hemp has been used for industrial purposes including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food and fuel with modest...

 behave differently than protein-based fibers. Linen and cotton, for instance, comprised most paper
Paper is a thin material mainly used for writing upon, printing upon, drawing or for packaging. It is produced by pressing together moist fibers, typically cellulose pulp derived from wood, rags or grasses, and drying them into flexible sheets....

s for many centuries. Clothing and handcrafts were often made with linen or cotton. Needlework was often done with silk, wool, or hair on a linen or cotton ground. Hairwork, silk embroidery, and wool embroidery pose special problems, due to the makeup of their parts. In diffused light, all fibers deteriorate rapidly, compared to those stored in the dark. However, cotton and linen resist temperature well. Cotton can be stored in temperatures well above 100 degrees and still remain chemically and physically stable. With these varying degrees of chemical and physical degradation, textiles woven from a blend of fibers, or art pieces created using a variety of fibers, deteriorate unevenly. Storage of wool and silk, for example in the ideal condition for one, might have a negative effect on the other.

Preservation of textiles

All textiles react negatively to air pollution, light, extremes of temperature, and humidity. Rapid changes in the environment can cause undue stress for these natural fibers, causing them to expand and contract as they take on moisture if kept in humid conditions, to dry out in high heat. Chemical bonds are broken by the machinations of UV light and chemicals in polluted air. As with other, more traditional, library materials, temperature and humidity should be kept within a steady range if at all possible: 70 (+/- 5 degrees) degrees Fahrenheit and 50% (+/- 5%) relative humidity is suggested by most sources. Pre-conditioned silica gel
Silica gel
Silica gel is a granular, vitreous, porous form of silica made synthetically from sodium silicate. Despite its name, silica gel is a solid. It is a naturally occurring mineral that is purified and processed into either granular or beaded form...

 used for the purpose of humidity control should never come into direct contact with textiles.

Textiles should be stored in darkness, and exhibited in dim light with UV filtration. To avoid acid-migration, textiles should not come into contact with wood or cardboard. Acid-free
Acid-free paper
Acid-free paper is paper that has a neutral or basic pH . It can be made from any cellulose fiber as long as the active acid pulp is eliminated during processing. It is also lignin and sulfur free...

 tissue or muslin are often used to shield textiles from harmful lignin
Lignin or lignen is a complex chemical compound most commonly derived from wood, and an integral part of the secondary cell walls of plants and some algae. The term was introduced in 1819 by de Candolle and is derived from the Latin word lignum, meaning wood...


Storage options for textiles are manifold. Small items, such as locks of hair, fragments of cloth, or lace can be stored flat, sandwiched between sheets of tissue or encapsulated in mylar. Larger items tend to deteriorate at points of stress, due to folding or gravity pulling the fibers from one another. Finch and Putnam recommend rolling on plastic tubing or covered cardboard, or shaping over dummies. Clothing is often stored or shaped around specially created forms that support the textile fully while it is displayed or even hanged.
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