Ethics in Archives: Preservation Despite the Odds

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Degraded tape and a micro spatula

Blog post contributed by Taylor de Klerk and Jessica Serrao, Library Associates

Archival processing requires a lot of tough decisions. It may not always seem that way, but collections need special attention to prevent their contents from losing a perpetual battle against time and degradation. As archivists and stewards of NCSU Libraries’ special collections, it’s our responsibility to make sure the university’s historically significant materials are in a stable condition to last as long as possible. We must make tough preservation decisions that juggle our priorities with limitations on resources (think time, staff, and funding). Potential ethical challenges surround these decisions. How do we fairly and transparently make these decisions based on our collecting priorities and available resources?

Preservation is at the core of archival work. We are charged with saving and making records indefinitely accessible for our communities. If we do not persistently act to preserve our collections, they will degrade, making them nearly impossible for users to access. This is true for both physical and digital archival materials. We'll talk more about digital preservation in a post to come, but in its most basic form, physical archival preservation consists of protecting materials from chemical, mechanical, and biological deterioration and environmental factors. These could be: destructive acid migration; excessive or improper handling; and natural disasters such as fires and floods that can wipe out a whole archive in an instant. Just imagine the kinds of issues archives in Texas and Florida are facing in the wake of recent hurricanes.

Acidic envelope with water damage and its contents

Maintaining a safe environment is the first step for preserving a collection. When we first acquire a collection, we improve its condition by transferring it to a secure storage facility. Following archival best practices, Special Collections stores materials in spaces equipped with security systems and environmental monitoring systems to control temperature and relative humidity (RH). If uncontrolled, high temperatures and RH can expedite deterioration of practically all material. To learn more about deterioration processes, the Northeast Document Conservation Center and Northern States Conservation Center are two great resources. Also, check out this article on Collections Care that explains temperature and RH.

When we acquire collections, our preservation decisions depend on available resources and priorities. Our preliminary inventory and processing stages include basic actions such as placing materials in acid-free folders and containers, and often removing items like rusty metal fasteners (staples, binder clips, and paper clips), tape, and rubber bands that adhere to paper and leave stains. Over time, these harden and must be scraped off with micro spatulas. Micro spatulas are long metal tools with flat ends, useful for removing not only corroded rubber bands but also staples and other sticky stuff. They are more gentle than other tools, such as standard staple removers.

Micro spatula removing a staple

Archival processing methods shifted about a decade ago with the publication of Greene and Meissner’s influential article, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing.” For us, the “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) methodology means storing collections in secure, climate-controlled facilities and taking those basic actions that have most effect. Sometimes this means skipping time consuming preservation minutiae like removing staples and tape that were, and in some places still are, standard practice, in favor of providing quicker user access to collections. Adopting this practice raises many questions. Is it more important to save the time we’d spend on staple removal to get collections processed for researchers? In what circumstances should we do time-consuming item-level conservation work? Are there certain kinds of preservation that we need to do no matter what? These decisions affect the longevity of our archival materials, and what materials one archivist deems important might not be so for a researcher, or even another archivist. These decisions are situational and highly dependent on how the archive defines their collecting priorities.

To ensure collections have a fighting chance to weather the ages, we must make preservation decisions based on available resources. That means we must weigh staff time and cost of preservation actions with how highly in demand (realized or projected) the collection is among researchers. For example, if we know that faculty in the College of Design plan to use folded oversize architectural drawings for a class, we will plan to flatten them as soon as we can. In a perfect world, we would preserve every item in ideal conditions, bugs wouldn’t eat paper, and nothing would be damaged by handling. However, archivists live in a reality of tough ethical decisions, so we will continue to preserve Special Collections materials as efficiently and as safely as possible for our researchers.

This post is part of our series about ethics in archives introduced here. In this series, we discuss a variety of ethical issues that archivists face and simultaneously provide background on what we do every day. Check out our previous posts on description and privacy. And stay tuned--more posts are coming soon!