Safe Storage for Archival Preservation

Margot Note

Margot Note

September 19, 2022

Many organizations have little room to store archival collections, so rare and fragile materials often end up in less-than-ideal locations. 

In addition, most materials deteriorate over time, especially audiovisual materials, so a vigilant eye is needed to protect the items chosen for archival collections. 

Environmental Concerns

Areas housing archival collections should be climate-controlled and monitored to protect materials. Climate standards for archives are 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% Relative Humidity. However, keeping stable temperature and humidity levels is preferable to pursuing an ideal of climate control that may be difficult to reach in many buildings. If organizations must store archival collections in attics or basements, or areas subject to environmental hazards, archivists must take the steps necessary to protect the items by installing metal shelving units, protecting boxes with tarps, and removing sensitive materials to ensure a more stable environment.

Keeping one step ahead of environmental concerns is only part of the preservation effort. Materials identified for retention in perpetuity will often need to be cleaned or repaired and will have to be re-housed in archival boxes and folders.

Archivists should immediately isolate items and treat the damage if archival documents have been damaged by water damage, mold, and light exposure. Mold can be dangerous if inhaled, so it is best to consult a specialist who can advise on the treatment if necessary. 

Safe Supplies

At the fundamental level, archival items should be boxed and stored on metal shelves in areas not subject to waterways, windows, vents, or excessive fluorescent lighting. Use acid-free sleeves and boxes to store the materials and place these boxes in easily accessible, temperature-controlled rooms. Keep these rooms free from food and beverage use. Purchase inexpensive UV fluorescent light filters to protect archival collections from fading due to prolonged light exposure and keep a regular cleaning schedule to remove dust, dirt, and other materials from shelves and floors. 

Archivists should communicate with the building maintenance staff to be aware of and negotiate cleaning services and changes to the temperature control and lighting of the archives room. For example, the organization might lower or turn off the building’s heat when the building is not occupied, but extreme temperature changes could damage records. Stabilize slides, photos, and negatives by housing these items separately from paper collections. Use archival-grade photo envelopes and sleeves to protect the film and label the sleeves with identifying information about the images. 

If the organization lacks funding for archival supplies, store the items in size-specific folders and boxes of the highest quality available, given the budget. Do not overstuff or under-pack the boxes. Archivists want to create an environment in the box whereby the documents are easily pulled for access and not bent when removing documents. Archivists should label each box with date ranges and content descriptions and purchase reams of acid-free paper to interleave material and as dividers within the boxes.

Woman or Man with a Plan

A well-planned emergency plan should also be in place should unforeseen natural disasters affect the archival holdings. Appoint staff members to ensure proper handling of the damaged materials and have a plan for dealing with the damage. Staff members should share the plan with their colleagues, and multiple copies should be kept inside and outside the organization. The plan should also include emergency phone numbers, including local organizations that can aid the theatre in case of damaged materials, such as the Northeast Document Conservation Center, whose leaflets can be helpful when preservation crises arise. 

While most companies will not have the resources to conduct a complete preservation survey and follow-up treatment, staff members should become familiar with triage methods. In addition, emergency supplies, including plastic drop cloths and a wet vac, should be on hand for the archives. Types of natural disasters that affect the institution’s geographic area, such as flooding or earthquakes, will dictate the most useful emergency supplies. Discuss this emergency planning with the administration, so the institution-wide plan integrates the archives.

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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