"Mission Critical" Tips for Archives Managment

Shelves of file folders and containers.
Iowa State Archives and Records Program.

Photo courtesy of Jessikah Haselhorst, National Park Service.

As the steward of a National Historic Landmark (NHL), you can certainly relate to that growing pile of “stuff” over in the corner, a pile that you have every intention of organizing…someday. Is it being put off because you wonder where to even start? Maybe a friendly push is needed to get started on archives, or perhaps you’re looking for guidance on how to manage the existing collection.

While organizing an archive may be a daunting task, the scope of what can be learned from the effort will make it well worth the time. Nothing educates more about the people of the past than the objects they left behind. As a NHL steward, you have been entrusted with one of the most monumental responsibilities in historic preservation: to ensure that historical records are maintained and can be accessed by those who seek to study them. As you read on, keep in mind that every detail mentioned is “mission critical” to the creation, management, and success of your archives.

Be prepared to dedicate an area to your work. Substantial space will be required to manage your paper archives based on the following factors: the size of the collection, the number of staff members, the number of tasks for which the archives is responsible, and the number of users who will be served. You should plan to store about 1.5 cubic feet of records for each square foot of storage space (if you plan to use standard shelving with aisles between each range). Another shelving option to consider is mobile, compact shelving which can nearly triple the storage capacity of records to about 4.5 cubic feet per square foot of storage (Wilsted and Nolte, 1991).

The environmental factors that can damage a collection are temperature, moisture, air quality and light. Recent research shows that the two most important factors are temperature and relative humidity (RH). Here’s how it works: high RH provides the moisture necessary to promote harmful chemical reactions in materials. When high RH is combined with high temperature, the two work together to encourage mold growth and insect activity. Chemical decay is the most significant threat to paper archive collections because many paper products are composed primarily of organic, inherently acidic materials. Wood pulp, for example, will spontaneously decay if stored at room temperature, and will only survive for a few decades (Reilly, 2008). Experts say the solution to this problem is to maintain a stable temperature in your archive between 60°F and 70°F and a stable RH between 30% and 50%. Keeping RH at the lower end of this range will slow down the deterioration rate (Ogden, 2007).

Pay special attention to fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity. Most archival materials are hygroscopic, which means they readily absorb and release moisture. They respond to seasonal changes in temperature and relative humidity by expanding and contracting, which ultimately speeds up deterioration and leads to noticeable damage like wrinkling paper and cracked emulsion on photographs (Ogden, 2007). It is a good idea to let materials acclimate to changes in their environment gradually. For example, remove photographs from cold storage and place them in a plastic bag at room temperature for at least 24 hours. This will give the photographs a “thawing” period prior to being examined and will substantially reduce damage from cracking.

In order for temperature and relative humidity to be systematically measured and recorded in your archive storage space, it is imperative that the space has its own climate-control system. The climate control equipment you choose for your archive, again, depends on its size. It may be as simple as a room air conditioner, humidifier, or dehumidifier; or as complex as a central, buildingwide system that filters, cools, heats, humidifies, and dehumidifies the air. The ideal environment you are seeking is one characterized by cold, dry air that is free from pollutants. The system should never be turned off, and settings should never be lowered at night or on weekends. The costs incurred for keeping the climate-control system in constant operation will be far less than the costs of later repairs to damaged records.
A white box and white cotton gloves on a desk.
Use cotton gloves like these when handling delicate materials.

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Mason, National Park Service.

Controlling air quality is difficult and complex. First, gaseous contaminants — especially sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, peroxides, and ozone — catalyze harmful chemical reactions that lead to the formation of acid in materials. This is a serious problem for paper that is especially prone to damage caused by acid. Gaseous contaminants can be removed from your storage space by chemical filters, wet scrubbers, or a combination of both. Secondly, particulate matter needs to be dealt with as well. It can be mechanically filtered via high efficiency filters attached to vents, furnaces, or air conditioners (keep in mind that electrostatic precipitators should not be used because they produce harmful ozone). Most building-wide systems will mechanically filter particulates in larger archive repositories. A regular schedule of housekeeping maintenance should include the replacement of pumps, motors, and fans; changing of air filters; integrated pest management; routine dry cleaning of floors and all surfaces; and skilled vacuuming of collections (Merrill-Oldham, 2008). It is always a good idea to consult an experienced environmental engineer for high-efficiency filtration recommendations.

Exposing archival materials to light, even for a brief time, can lead to weakening and embrittlement of the cellulose fibers in paper that cause discoloration. All wave lengths of light are damaging, but ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the worst for archival materials because it contains a high level of energy. If you cannot avoid it, the standard UV limit for preservation is 75 μW/l, measured in microwatts per lumen (Ogden, 2007). In all reality, some exposure to light is necessary while accessing the archives. Ideally, materials should be exposed to light only while in use, and it should come from an incandescent bulb. The materials being studied should be kept at a distance from the heat of the bulb at all times. Windows should be covered to completely block out the sun, which will also aid in temperature control. Paper archive materials should never be placed on display in the path of direct sunlight.

Many insects, even the well-known “bookworm,” damage paper documents by eating right through them. Insects consider your archive collection the ultimate buffet. Bugs especially love nibbling on book binding glue and old photographs. Rodents will chew through anything that stands in their way. They also love to use your paper archives as nesting material. Make sure your facility is air tight by sealing all openings in walls, under eaves, doors and windows. Routine inspections of your materials will allow you to keep pest activity under control.

The deterioration of paper records is inevitably caused by people through maintenance and use—the archives are damaged each time they are handled and this is not always fully reversible through conservation treatment. The way that an archivist handles historic documents while they are being organized or brought to a reader for use can substantially affect their preservation. Be gentle when handling materials and wear cotton gloves whenever possible.

It is the responsibility of every archive administrator to develop an organizational structure that illustrates the scope of the collection, where the material is stored, and how it will be used. For a repository to operate effectively, it must communicate its organizational mission and user policies to all of those associated with the facility. The user access policy is especially important, as it provides specific guidelines regarding the handling and use of materials. Cataloging and finding aids help support preservation by minimizing handling. Be sure to create a reocrd for each item that includes: 1) the format or media type of the object; 2) a physical description of the object; 3) an evaluation of the object's condition, and 4) a unique identifying code that will accompany the object wherever it goes. "Like a book incorrectly shelved in a library, a photograph not represented in an inventory is effectivley lost to a collection." (Reilly, 1986).

The importance of security for your collection cannot be stressed enough. Decades of work can take only seconds to destroy. The value of an entire collection is diminished when even a small part of it is damaged or stolen. To prevent this from happening, security measures should be taken to protect your collection from theft, vandalism, human negligence, and natural disaster. You should have a plan in place for emergency preparedness and response support.

One of your most important roles is to make your archive collection accessible to the people seeking to study its contents. If you choose one directory in which to be listed, the Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States is the preferred option for three reasons: 1) it is compiled and updated annually by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC); 2) it is the only national listing for all kinds of archives and manuscript repositories; and 3) it provides information on 5,480 repositories and 132,300 collections of primary source material across the United States (see website for NHPRC). To inquire about being listed, the NHPRC staff can be contacted at nhprc@nara.gov or (202)- 357-5010.

As you archive the materials at your site, the challenges that lie ahead will certainly not be small. Nevertheless, make it your duty to proudly preserve your historic paper materials and you will be appreciated by generations to come.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 6, 2011, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Jessikah Haselhorst.

[1]. Cline, Nancy M. Stewardship • The Janus Factor (Library of Congress, September 8, 2008), http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/presidents/chap1.html (June 22, 2011).
[2]. Merrill-Oldham, Jan. Taking Care • An Informed Approach to Library Preservation (Library of Congress, September 8, 2008), http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/presidents/chap8.html
[3]. Ogden, Sherelyn. Temperature, Relative Humidity, Light, and Air Quality: Basic Guidelines for Preservation (Northeast Document Conservation Center, 2007), http://www.nedcc.org/resources/leaflets/2The_Environment/01BasicGuidelines.php (June 22, 2011).
[4]. Reilly, James M. Care and Identification of 19th Century Photographic Prints (Eastman Kodak Company, 1986), 74.
[5]. Reilly, James M. Measuring Environmental Quality in Preservation (Library of Congress, 2008), http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/presidents/chap16.html (June 22, 2011).
[6]. Wilsted, Thomas, and William Nolte. Managing Archival and Manuscript Repositories (Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 1991), 57-58.
[7]. National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/research/alic/tools/online-databases.html#m8 (July 12, 2011).

Last updated: June 22, 2018