Tackling the concept of “preservation” in one blog post is utterly impossible and frankly, no one should even attempt it! I certainly will not. However, for our purposes, I thought it might be reasonable to highlight the main aspects of a preservation program and then briefly articulate a few points about each of these aspects. Even though my goal here is to be concise, I quickly realized that I will have to do two separate blog posts to fit all of this in. ACA preparation domain three. #Leggo.
An archival preservation program generally encompasses the following aspects:
- Use and handling
- Holdings and collects maintenance
- Duplicating and reformatting
- Conservation treatment
- Emergency preparedness
- Digital preservation (since this is such a big, bad bear of its own, that I am treating it separately)
- Education and outreach
Storing archival materials in a proper environment is CRUCIAL. In fact, many archivists agree that before boxes, folders, sleeves, and other items are perfectly archival, the environment needs to be stable. Once the macroenvironment (temperature, relative humidity, air circulation, light, pest management… is stable, the microenvironment (boxes, cases, shelves…) is the next priority. Here are a few nuggets to remember:
- Temperature level: 65 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit (honestly, the cooler the better)
- Unstable materials like acetate or nitrate film, photographic negatives, transparencies, and color photographs generally benefit from cold storage, which is usually below freezing)
- Relative humidity level: 30 – 50 percent
- Relative humidity is the ratio of water vapor in the air to the amount of moisture the air can hold at that temperature
- As temperature increases, relative humidity decreases
- Air circulation: Should not be stagnant; moving air is always preferable
- Light: UV radiation, visible light, and infrared radiation can all have detrimental effects on paper and other organic materials! In every way possible, archival materials should have limited exposure to light.
- Light exposure = intensity X time
- Pests/housekeeping: Good housekeeping practices are key to keeping dust and pests out of the stacks and everywhere else in the archives. Many repositories implement an “integrated pest management” approach which emphasizes good housekeeping and maintaining ideal environmental conditions as a way to prevent pests instead of using chemicals or other means to merely react to pest problems
- In general, archival materials should be stored on steel shelving (there should always be a minimum twelve-inch barrier between the top of archival containers on the uppermost shelf and the ceiling and or light fixtures/pipes)
- Proper storage containers are very important to an archival program in this particular order…
- Boxes (primary support)
- Folders (secondary support)
- Polyester sleeves and other similar materials (tertiary support)
Use and handling:
Sadly, one of the greatest threats to archival materials is humans . . . and their hands. I know, disappointing. And exactly how do we manage this considering the goal of archives is to make them accessible to the public? Well, we attempt to enforce some standard best practices. . .
- Be on the lookout for preservation issues when using materials (tears and creases in paper, fragile books, cracked glass, etc…)
- PENCIL ONLY in areas where archives are exposed
- Fully support documents on work surfaces
- Be careful when scanning; when possible, use an overhead scanner
- Use two hands when handling oversize materials
- Wear clean, white, lint-free gloves when handling photographs
- Use book trucks or carts to transport records
- When necessary, get two people to handle large or fragile records
- NO FOOD OR DRINKS anywhere near archival materials
- Educate patrons
- And many, many others that I do not have time to articulate here. Feel free to add comments!
Duplicating and Reformatting:
Duplicating and reformatting are essential functions within an archives because they allow archivists to provide wide access to fragile and/or sensitive materials that otherwise, the public would not have access to. While both functions are useful, it is important to note that they do not have the same meaning. According to the Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology, to duplicate means to make copies of an original, generally in the same format as the original. Reformatting, however, is a process where a copy is created with a format and structure different from the original, particularly for preservation and access.
Duplication example: Making a photocopy of a paper documentReformatting example: Digitizing the contents of a cassette tape or VHS into an Mp3 or Mp4 format
What does conservation really mean, and how is it different from preservation and restoration? Well, according to the Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology, conservation is the umbrella term. Conservation signifies the repair or stabilization of materials through chemical or physical treatment to ensure that they persist in their original format as long as possible. Conservation can be proactive or reactive care. Preservation, on the other hand, is only proactive. It means protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration to minimize loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property. Restoration is a term that is used less and less, but it includes efforts to return materials to their original state, not just to repair them. Examples of conservation treatment may include a host of things such as surface cleaning, binding repairs, rehousing, removing rusty paperclips, migrating digital files, etc. Some archives also engage in mass conservation procedures in order to treat many different materials exhibiting the same problems. Some treatments that lend themselves to this model include deacidification, fumigation, and select paper-strengthening techniques.
One thing that is especially important to note about conservation is the rule of reversibility. I will quote directly from Mary Ritzenthaler’s Preserving Archives & Manuscripts, page 336: “To the degree possible, a conservator should not undertake any procedure or treatment that he or she cannot later, if necessary, undo without harm to the document.” Obviously, archivists and conservators cannot uphold this rule all the time, but it is something important to keep in mind.
Ok, so that was part one. We’ll discuss emergency preparedness, digital preservation, and education/outreach next week!
Resources I consulted:
Preserving Archives & Manuscripts by Mary Ritzenthaler
Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology by Richard Pearce-Moses