Because We’re Special.

One of my favorite phrases in archival terminology is the phrase “special collections.” I love this phrase so much because it describes itself perfectly. If you have never heard the phrase “special collections” before, the first thing to note is that it’s a multifaceted term.  For instance, take a look at Laura Schmidt’s explanation of the phrase in her publication Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research:

Special collections are institutions containing materials from individuals, families, and organizations deemed to have significant historical value. Topics collected in special collections vary widely, and include medicine, law, literature, fine art, and technology. Often a special collections repository will be a department within a library, holding the library’s rarest or most valuable original manuscripts, books, and/or collections of local history for neighboring communities.[1]

This definition is interesting to me because it’s pretty much synonymous with the general definition for archives. In fact, many people use the terms “archives” and “special collections” interchangeably. However, others prefer to view special collections in a slightly different category than archives. In some archival repositories, particularly archives often refer to the records created during the course of organizational business while special collections refer to manuscripts, rare books, and other rare, unpublished material that may be more personal, or perhaps covers a wide range of topics.

There’s really no right or wrong to view of the phrase “special collections.” It all depends on your repository and what it collects. As Schmidt mentioned in her definition, some institutions are solely “special collections institutions” that collect a wide variety of archival materials from individual people, families, communities, and organizations. Other institutions, such as corporate archives and government archives, probably have very few special collections materials because they focus on collecting the business archives of a specific entity. Other institutions, such as universities, often have a mix of archives and special collections materials. For example, at the Kennesaw State University Archives (where I work), we have separated our repository holdings into three main records groups: University Archives, Special Collections, and Digital Collections ( For us, the university archives and the special collections work together to fulfill our mission, which is to document an inclusive history of our university and of the north and northwest Georgia community. Our university records (presidential records, departmental records, student group records, etc.) document university history and our special collections (local history records, genealogical records, family papers, etc.) document the north and northwest Georgia community in which we live. If I am being completely honest, I must say that I have always preferred working with our special collections because I get to learn about so many different people’s stories. There’s just something so intimate about reading a handwritten letter between a Vietnam soldier and the girl he adores, analyzing marginalia in a medieval manuscript, or preserving a carte de visite that once sat in a nineteenth-century parlor!

No matter how you view or describe special collections, one thing to remember is that they truly are special. I’ve traveled through the World War II Homefront, the Civil Rights Movement, the era of Native American Removal, and many other periods of American history simply by working with special collections.

You are special. Humans our special. Our memories are special. Our collections are special.


*This is the front side of a letter in the Robert deTreville Lawrence III Papers at the Kennesaw State University Archives. The Lawrence Collection is one of our special collections.

[1] Laura Schmidt, Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research (Society of American Archivists, 2011).


Christmas in the Stacks

The holidays! Ah, cookies, lights, snow, family, feasting, gifts, and – emergency plans??

When you’re an archivist, the holidays not only render feelings of joy and excitement but also of anticipation and concern. Many archivists—like myself—work at universities or other institutions that have a one or two-week holiday break. During this break, we still have to think about how to care for our collections and ensure that environmental controls remain stable and up to archival standards. Managing these changes often involves communicating with facility workers and perhaps even library staff members, depending on where the archives are located. At my job, we’ve been talking a lot about protecting our collections during the holiday break. Here are some things we’ve been talking about. . .

  • Temperature/humidity controls: Check with facility staff to find out if there will be changes in the HVAC system during the break. If so, develop a plan for ensuring that the archives is able to remain at proper standards. Although archivists often focus on the dangers of high humidity levels, remember that low humidity is just as dangerous. Low humidity levels can produce dry, brittle paper.
  • Alarms: Is your archives secured with alarms? Think about investing in technology that will allow an archives staff member to be notified if the alarm goes off.
  • Create an email thread involving facility workers and archives staff well before the holiday break. Get the conversation going earlier than later.
  • Figure out the light situation. Generally, lights will be off during the break, which is preferred for archival collections. However, it never hurts to check.
  • Air! Stagnant air can be an unsuspecting culprit. Air that isn’t moving can be a breeding ground for mold and pests.


What other things can y’all think of? Feel Free to comment and provide advice!

The Northeast Document Conservation Center provides some general preservation advice that is always very useful:

Meet My Team!

This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I LOVE my first professional position as an archivist at the Kennesaw State University Archives! I am the Outreach/Special Collections Archivist. I’ve been there for a little over two months, and it’s amazing. My job involves giving instruction sessions to undergraduates, developing and maintaining relationships with donors, handling reference requests, creating exhibits and public programs, and working with the Bentley Rare Book Gallery!

I’d like everyone to meet the two archivists I work with! On the right is Anne Graham, University Archives/Digital Collections Archivist, and in the middle is Armando Suarez, Processing Archivist. Of course, on the left is me! We are the archivist family at KSU, and we love it!

KSU archivists photo

ACA Preparation Part 3: Preservation (continued)

Hi all! Let’s finish up a few remaining points from our discussion of preservation in the last post…

Emergency Preparedness

For most of us, it is easier to identify and solve issues that are happening right now. Let’s look at an example:

Problem: “I am processing a collection, and I ran out of archival folders.”

Solution: “I need to order more ASAP.”

It’s a simple example, but you get the point. On the contrary, when it comes to solving issues that are merely “potential” or seemingly nonthreatening at the moment, it can be a bit harder to find the motivation to do something about it. Hence, this is the reason why many archives either lack or struggle to maintain a viable emergency preparedness and response plan.

Emergency preparedness for an archives is not frame of mind or an abstract concept – it is an action plan. It is a written document that identifies various types of potential emergencies and their sources (natural disasters, human/mechanical errors…), explains the procedures for dealing with emergencies, and explains each staff member’s role in protecting the archives and its resources in the event of an emergency. In addition, these plans usually contain lists of first responders, necessary supplies, and diagrams of the building and the physical location of all archival materials. Here are a few nuggets about emergency preparedness courtesy of Mary Ritzenthaler’s book Preserving Archives & Manuscripts:

  • Emergency preparedness plans should include…
    • List of potential disasters and their sources
    • Physical location of all records
    • Mapped routes of escape
    • Supply lists
    • Written, step-by-step procedures for handling an emergency
    • Clearly delineated roles among staff members
    • List of first responders
    • List of exits
    • Preventative measures to help lessen the effects of a disaster or even prevent its occurrence all together
  • All staff members should read and know the emergency preparedness plan.
  • Emergency preparedness plans should exists in various locations, and staff members should know all of these locations.
  • Know your vital records and note their locations in the plan.
  • HUMAN SAFETY COMES FIRST. I know, it seems obvious, but when you’re an archivist, it is easy to forget that!
  • Have conversations with your first responders (security guards, firefighters, local police, etc.) in order to forge positive relationships with them and to keep them informed about archives and the type of protection they need. Remember, first responders may not know much about archives, so it’s good to educate them.
  • Consider options for 24/7 alarm systems.
  • Push for regular facility checkups so potential building issues can be identified early on.

Remember, an emergency preparedness plan is not the same as a disaster recovery plan. The latter is a plan for rebuilding once a disaster has already occurred. The former is about being ready for a disaster that may come one day and making plans that will hopefully mitigate its effects.

Digital Preservation

Digital preservation means taking action to ensure that digital objects persist into the future. Identifying and implementing the proper steps for digital preservation is quite a challenge for archivists, largely because technology is constantly evolving. This blog post will not even come close to scratching the surface when it comes to discussing digital preservation, but hopefully it will provide a few things to consider.

Digital objects come in many forms. Here are a few of the most common…

  • Digital photos
  • Digital documents
  • Harvested web content
  • Digital manuscripts
  • Static and dynamic data sets
  • Digital art
  • Digital media publications
  • Social media content
  • Digital video and audio

Digital objects are unique because their structure is so complex. In order to render digital objects and interpret them, we have to understand them as physical objects, logical objects, and conceptual objects. The physical object is what we can hold on our hand. It contains the inscription of signs on a physical medium (ex. file written on a flash drive or DVD). The logical object refers to the bitstream that is recognized and processed by software (. The conceptual object is the object as it is understood by humans, usually in a GUI-type of environment. In order to experience a digital object, we must use a physical object to express a logical one. This involves both hardware and software.

Main methods for handling digital preservation:

Migration – changing a digital object currently depending on an obsolete environment into a new object suited to a new environment

  • Media migration – moving bits from one media to another (no change in bits)
  • File format migration – taking a set of bits and transforming them into a new representation

Emulation – creating a new process in hardware and software that mimics an obsolete process to render a digital object without modification

  • Original system emulation – creator of content provides the original environment (ex. an obsolete software) and the archivist recreates this environment using disk images
  • Emulation as a service – creating a more generalized emulated environment using vintage data (ex. FreeDos was created as an emulated environment for programs that used to use MS-DOS)

Metadata is the last thing I’m going to mention. Metadata takes on a whole new meaning and importance when we are dealing with digital items because digital material is extremely vulnerable to losing context. Metadata may be created by the record creator, the donor, the archivist, and sometimes the machine or software rendering the digital material. There are many metadata standards and schemas for preserving digital material. Some include Dublin Core, METS, MODS, and PREMIS.


As I close my discussion on preservation, I’d like to share some great materials that might be of use when studying for the ACA exam, or in the future, managing preservation in an archival program. A few of these I’ve mentioned already, but some I have not…

  • Preserving Archives and Manuscripts by Mary Ritzenthaler
  • Northeast Document Conservation Center leaflets
  • Photographs: Archival Care and Management by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Diane L. Vogt-O’Connor
  • Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology by Richard Pearce-Moses
  • “Defining ‘Born Digital’” by Ricky Erway
  • OAIS Model
  • Becoming a Trusted Digital Repository by Steve Marks
  • Countless articles in the American Archivist, Archival Issues, Archivaria, Archival Science, and others that talk about preservation


Again, these are just a few of the many resources available regarding preservation!










ACA Preparation Part 3: Preservation

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:

  • Storage
  • 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

Conservation treatment:

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!

preservation pic
Courtesy of Duke University

Resources I consulted:

Preserving Archives & Manuscripts by Mary Ritzenthaler

Northeast Document Conservation Center preservation leaflets

Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology by Richard Pearce-Moses



ACA Preparation Part 2: Arrangement and Description

Arrangement and description (aka processing) is the archival domain that facilitates physical and intellectual control over materials, preserves context, and facilitates access to these materials. Let’s break it down. . .

Arrangement, in an archival sense, means organizing material according to the principles of provenance and original order to protect their context. Provenance (respect des fonds) is the principle that says records should be maintained according to their origin and not mixed with records of a different origin. The principle of original order (l’ordre primitif) says that records should be kept in the order established by the record creator.

When we think about the way records are arranged, we view it in a hierarchical sense, from broad to specific. Oliver Wendell Holmes articulated this nature of archival records when he devised the five levels of arrangement for the National Archives in 1964. Even though these levels were specifically created for the National Archives, many other repositories have adopted all or some of these levels:

Depository: major divisions or branches of a repository

Record Group or Collection: the creating agency, organization, family, individual

Series: documents arranged as a unit because they result from the same activity

File unit: a unit of documents grouped together because they relate to the same subject, activity, or

Document: individual item or unit

Description is the process that takes place after arrangement and provides information about the content and context of records. Description means creating accurate representations of records by analyzing and recording information that facilitates the identification, understanding, and management of materials. Archivists describe materials in aggregates, starting at the collection level and working their way down as necessary. Usually, archivists make these descriptions available to users through finding aids.

Reviewing Archival Descriptive Standards

One of the main challenges I have when studying arrangement and description is keeping track of archival descriptive standards. There are three main types:

Data value standards (dictate what the data in a descriptive field should be)

  • Examples: Library of Congress Subject Headings, Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names…

Data content standards (dictate what the content should be in a descriptive resource and how this content should be structured)

  • Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), The General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)), Anglo-American Cataloging Rules…

Data structure/format standards (dictate what elements should be included in a descriptive resource and how these elements should be encoded)

  • Encoded Archival Description (EAD), Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC), Machine Readable Cataloging Archives and Manuscript Control (MARC AMC), Dublin Core…

Kathleen Roe provides a great history of the movement toward standardizing archival arrangement and description on pages 36-44 of her book Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts. I am going to re-read this! In addition, some other great resources discussing archival arrangement and description include The Organization of Information by Arlene G. Taylor and Daniel N. Joudrey, How to Manage Processing in Archives and Special Collections by Pam Hackbart-Dean and Elizabeth A. Slomba, Archival Principles of Arrangement by Theodore Schellenberg, the Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives by Muller, Feith, and Fruin, and many others.

processing pic










ACA Preparation Part 1: Appraisal

So . . . life just got real. You know that moment when you’ve been trying to keep something at the back of your brain and then suddenly an email appears in your inbox that forces you to confront this “thing” head on? Well, maybe these kinds of situations only happen to me. This past Friday, June 3, the Academy of Certified Archivists sent me an email reminding me that I am scheduled to take the ACA exam in exactly two months.

Initial reaction. . .

Second reaction. . . .

Okay, no need to panic. This just means that my “on and off” studying needs to become a little more structured, that’s all. As I organize my brain and freshen up on absolutely everything that has to do with archives, I am going to develop a series of posts focused on ACA preparation. These posts will cover random and various aspects of archives, specifically emphasizing the seven archival domains as articulated by the Academy of Certified Archivists: 1) selection, acquisition, and appraisal 2) arrangement and description 3) reference services and access 4) preservation and protection 5) outreach, advocacy, and promotion 6) managing archival programs 7) professional, ethical, and legal responsibilities. My goal is to provide reliable, solid information that I learned during my graduate studies as well as a list of helpful resources for further reference.

Let’s start with domain number one.

Discuss some methods for archival appraisal and their limits:


  • Method of appraisal that is based on organization purposes and the broader contexts in which records are created
  • Macroappraisal focuses on society as reflected in organizational structures; attempts to document the most important societal structures
  • Value of records is determined by the context of their creation and the function of this context within society as a whole
  • Reaction against Schellenbergian “file-by-file” review of value that has become more and more impractical in the digital age
  • Macroappraisal originated from Canadian archivists
  • Takes a much broader perspective on archives (“total archives”)
  • Opposite of microappraisal


  • Can hyperfocus on the “high level” and consequently ignore the “lower level” of society

Helpful resources for macroappraisal:

  • Terry Cook, “Macro-appraisal and functional analysis: documenting governance rather than government,” Journal of the Society of Archivists 25, no. 1 (2004), 5-18.
  • Brian Beaven, “Macro-Appraisal: From Theory to Practice.” Archivaria 48 (1999): 154-198.

Functional analysis:

  • Maps organizational functions and activities using a top-down approach; starts at the highest level needed and breaks down the system into its component parts
  • Similar to macroappraisal but has a business and organizational context


  • Requires knowledge of business functions and context

Helpful resources for functional analysis:

  • Terry Cook, “Macro-appraisal and functional analysis: documenting governance rather than government,” Journal of the Society of Archivists 25, no. 1 (2004), 5-18.
  • Elizabeth Shepherd and Geoffrey Yeo, Managing Records: A Handbook of Principles and Practices (London: Facet Publishing, 2003).

Documentation Strategy:

  • A plan to ensure the adequate documentation of an ongoing issue, activity, function, or subject
  • Inter-institutional effort
  • Calls upon expertise of record creators, users, and archivists


  • Inter-institutional collaboration fails because it is usually unsustainable
  • Requires funding and time that few repositories have

Helpful resources for documentation strategy:

Helen Willa Samuels, “Who Controls the Past,” The American Archivist 49, no. 2 (1986): 109-124.

Hackman, Larry, “The Documentation Strategy: Process: A Model and a Case Study,” The American Archivist 50, no. 1 (1987): 12-47.

Elizabeth Johnson, “Our Archives, Our Selves: Documentation Strategy and the Re-appraisal of Professional Identity,” The American Archivist 71, no.1 (2008): 190-202.

The Minnesota Method:

  • Strategy for appraising materials that combines elements of collection analysis, documentation strategy, appraisal, and functional analysis
  • A process for identifying, prioritizing, and ranking records creators and for suggesting various levels of documentation based on these rankings
  • Developed from Minnesota Historical Society


  • Utilitarian focus

Helpful resources for Minnesota Method:

Mark Greene, “The Surest Proof”: A Utilitarian Approach to Appraisal, Archivaria 45 (1998): 127-169.

Field Appraisal:

  • Appraisal method that takes place at the source of records


  • Not all collections are conducive to fast-paced field appraisal
  • Personal papers and special collections are often difficult to appraise in this way

Helpful resources for field appraisal:

  • Honestly, I’m not sure. Mark Greene taught my graduate class about this method in a guest lecture. I’m not sure if he’s written about it or not. Anybody know where to find literature on this method of appraisal?