On-Site or Off-Site Storage – Part 3: Preservation and Access

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

September 18, 2018

Off-site and remote storage facilities can serve as havens for items that have long-term preservation needs. One of the triggers for moving materials to off-site and remote storage facilities is an increased need for preservation. Items that are fragile, damaged, or need long-term storage in a stable environment may be candidates for transfer to off-site storage facilities.

Preservation activities

The two most common preservation activities are reformatting and rehousing. Reformatting entails making usable images or facsimiles (or legal surrogates) of printed material, visual and audio materials, objects, and, of course, records. Today, duplication entails scanning or filming to generate digital images that are accessible through databases, online catalogues, and indices. Some items are microfilmed either from the digital files or from originals. In the past, this was common practice which has now been superseded by digitization.

Reformatting for preservation and access

Digitization for access to fragile and easily damaged materials is a preservation activity. Once reformatted the original can be stored off-site to reduce physical stress on an object itself, while visual and intellectual content is accessed through databases, indices, and catalogs. Remote and off-site storage facilities are the perfect haven for these items—provided the facilities maintain a stable environment.

Original records routinely stored in off-site and remote storage facilities are subjected to limited wear and tear on the fragile physical objects, increasing their life-span. Materials that are routinely stored in off-site and remote storage facilities include brittle newspapers that have been microfilmed or digitized, and court and legal records that have been digitized. Seldom-used monographs and older runs of journals and magazines are often sent to storage because they are requested less often. Storage in off-site and remote sites is traditionally less expensive than storage on-site, especially for less frequently requested items.

Rehousing and remote storage for preservation

Another preservation activity is “rehousing” materials—which entails placing items in document storage boxes, phase boxes, and other containers. These archival quality containers protect fragile physical materials, maintain a relatively stable environment, and increase the longevity of enclosed items. While loose courthouse records and files are stored in document storage boxes, ledgers and other bound materials are routinely placed on open shelves in off-site storage facilities. Off-site storage facilities should be designed to protect paper materials and provide an environmentally stable and suitable place to house fragile items.

Audiovisual materials (photographs, sound recordings, and moving images, and even microfilm) are routinely housed in off-site storage facilities because stable environments are easier to control, especially for single format materials. In some cases, the materials have been digitized or duplicated for use or playback. Again, the duplicates are accessible through online catalogues, databases, and finding aids, reducing use of and preserving the original fragile items.

What’s a stable environment?

Off-site and remote storage facilities designed for housing materials over the long-term should maintain a stable preservation-appropriate environment. These facilities should maintain a stable, minimally fluctuating temperature and relative humidity. Temperatures for paper materials should range between 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit +/- 2 degrees. That means the temperature, if set at 65, should stay between 67 and 63 or vary even less. The relative humidity should stay between 35-50% +/- 2%.

There is an expectation that paper items are stored in archival quality pH-neutral or acid-free document and record storage boxes which protect their contents from moisture, fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity, and light.

Photographs and audio visual materials, but not glass plates, require lower temperatures closer to 40 degrees, with color film at 32 degrees or colder. Storage in appropriate pH-neutral boxes is routine, protecting materials from light and particulate matter. Whenever possible, paper records should be stored separately from film-based materials.

For safety reasons, nitrate film must be stored separately in approved nitrate vaults. Nitrate film is rarely found in off-site or remote storage facilities unless it is in unprocessed collections. Nitrate film is highly flammable and is considered a hazardous material. Talk with your fire and safety department before transporting nitrate materials to any digitization facilities or storage repositories.

Light – pests – particulate matter

Just as we want the off-site and remote storage facilities to maintain a stable environment, we also want to eliminate risk of damage from light, pests, and particulate matter.

  • Light – Housing records in boxes limits exposure of their contents to UV and visible light, both of which cause deterioration of all items in cultural institutions.
  • Pests – Birds, mice, bats, and other rodents are attracted to warm dry places in all seasons. While housing materials off-site in boxes reduces damage from droppings, they are also hiding places for such animals. Insects like termites, cockroaches, and silverfish are attracted to the starch in paper and boxes, to moisture, and dark places. To prevent damage from pests, work and shelving areas should be food and drink free. Ask about the facilities’ integrated pest management program. Regular maintenance of the facilities is a must to prevent infestations from pests of all types.
  • Particulate matter – Soot, dust, and pollution all damage the surfaces of objects collected by record centers, courthouses, and cultural institutions. Regular cleaning and routine maintenance of air handling systems reduces the amount of particulate matter in the air and on surfaces. Boxes keep out the majority of particulate matter. Regular cleaning is part of a good housekeeping program in an off-site and remote storage facility just as it’s essential in any on-site storage areas.

Summing it up

Preservation programs extend beyond on-site use and local storage areas. A stable, clean environment is a key preservation component to increased life-spans for original documents in off-site and remote storage facilities. Tour the facility on a regular basis to ensure that rehoused and boxed materials are stored appropriately, thus ensuring original materials will be available when patrons can’t work with the digitized images in online catalogs, indices, and database.

My next post will discuss disaster prevention, response, and security issues for materials stored in off-site and remote storage facilities.

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

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