Offsite Storage for Organizational Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

October 31, 2022

An increasingly important question for organizations is whether archival collections must or should be located within the same facility as the organization. 

Traditionally, an entire repository was united in one space. However, as collections and activities grew, additional storage was sought by some organizations, often initially viewed as a temporary solution. The organization could provide storage in its more remote buildings or procure vendors specializing in the service. Many organizations realized that offsite storage would be difficult or impossible to replace with onsite storage, given the scarcity of valuable land for building. Often, deciding whether to integrate all collections or formally adopt an offsite storage model is difficult. 

Advantages of Onsite Storage

Offsite storage in the past has been characterized by ad hoc solutions using low-quality space or seen as a bunker that is locked up and forgotten, which has given offsite storage a bad name. However, there are now numerous examples of large and small organizations that use state-of-the-art collection facilities that offer top-quality storage and excellent support space ranging from essentials such as loading docks to conservation labs, specialized project rooms, and offices. 

When collections are stored onsite, all building capital and running costs are assumed in one building. Staff efficiency is maximized by reducing travel outside the building or waiting for materials to be delivered. Collections are less frequently exposed to the outside environment and to travel hazards. Most importantly, collections are easily accessible for research and collaborative projects. 

Disadvantages of Onsite Storage

On the other hand, renovating and upgrading building systems is more difficult in a single facility. As the building ages, conditions may deteriorate and harm materials. Staff efficiency is reduced if onsite storage is overcrowded and equipment is outdated, collections become less accessible in crowded storerooms, and overcrowding may cause damage. When stored onsite, collections compete for other types of public and scholarship space and often are moved to subpar areas of the building. 

Advantages of Offsite Storage

It is possible, though expensive, to provide a facility purpose-built for storage without compromises due to other building needs. Storage can be supported by specialized facilities such as labs and workrooms that cannot be accommodated onsite. The cost of an offsite facility may be lower than onsite buildings due to land costs, different construction methods, and storage and support space consolidation more efficiently. Offsite storage can take the pressure off the main facility and allow greater flexibility in allocating space to evolving archival functions. Offsite space may also offer greater opportunities for future expansion, especially if additional land is part of the initial package. 

For many institutions, building a custom storage solution is not a possibility. Instead, they can send materials offsite through a vendor. In addition, they benefit from having the vendor responsible for storage, transport, and management. Vendors can also scan documents and provide tracking capabilities for the organization. 

Sending materials offsite frees up office space. Records storage facilities provide security measures to ensure records safety from those not authorized to view them. They also use climate controls to regulate temperature and humidity and fire-suppressant storage for heat to keep records protected.

Disadvantages of Offsite Storage

Offsite storage requires regular movement of staff, goods, and collections between locations, and any movement of collections involves some level of risk. Buildings offsite require some duplication of support facilities. A more remote location may pose additional security risks and a different security strategy. 

Offsite storage can also be surprisingly expensive. Storage fees from vendors are low per box, encouraging organizations to send their materials to storage. However, removing unnecessary boxes later or destroying files after disposition dates is much more costly. If organizations send records offsite without good reason, clear descriptions, or well-defined retention dates, they will pay more than is necessary for this service. 

Prioritizing Locations

Several organizations have found that while large-scale offsite storage repositories are their best option for the bulk of their collections, they may not be the best option for all. Highly valued and frequently accessed collections may need to be housed closer to home. Thus, a combination solution may be envisioned, with selected collections onsite and massed collections offsite. 

Offsite storage offers excellent possibilities for improving an institution’s ability to provide high-quality storage and support space for its collections; this is increasingly so when prime land and building costs have skyrocketed in many urban areas. However, for offsite storage to be the best solution and provide optimal conditions for the collections, it needs to be approached with the same planning rigor as any other project. Furthermore, it is not the only facilities solution and should be weighed against all other options to find the unique combination that meets the organization’s current and future needs. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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