Library & Archives

Archival Preservation

Keep calm and preserve your historyPreservation is an important component of any archival program. It is one of a number of activities that archivists undertake to ensure that records of enduring value will be accessible long into the future. It can also be a very tricky activity given the multiple formats that archives are required to maintain: everything from paper documents to photographs, negatives, slides, scrapbooks, ephemera, newspaper clippings, audiovisual materials on a variety of media, and in some cases artifacts of every shape and size and material.

The archivists at the Library and Archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame oversee the care, description, and access of the audiovisual and paper-based materials in the Museum’s permanent collection. We have a supply budget that allows us to purchase chemically stable, acid-free enclosures and a conservation lab that provides us with the space and materials to clean collections and create archivally-sound enclosures of our own when necessary.

First, Do No Harm

The Hippocratic Oath, borrowed from medical professionals to first consider whether a prescribed treatment will harm or heal a patient, has long been a mantra of conservators of historical materials as well. Acknowledging that in the past conservation treatments and preservation practices were undertaken that were thought to help historical materials but actually harmed them in the long run, present thinking is that it is much better to retain the original look and feel of an object and to not undertake any procedure that cannot later be undone.

This is why laminating, for instance, is no longer a recommended practice for brittle materials. The adhesive, plastics, and heat applied during the laminating process all work against paper materials, causing more rapid deterioration. It is much better to simply place brittle items in stiff mylar sleeves, from which they can be easily removed at a later date, if it is determined the mylar is more harmful than helpful.

So always keep in mind, when reading or viewing recommendations for preserving your family collections, that your goal, first and foremost, is to do no harm and that sometimes certain types of work are beyond our skills and require the work of a professional conservator.

What to Keep?

Everyone has mementos or keepsakes that they hold onto throughout the years; items that are precious and document life, love, interests, and passions. First, decide what you want to save long-term. You can choose to preserve final versions of documents, or you can include drafts and revisions. Clearly label and date materials so you will have that information later on. Use pencil; if you must use ink, label the file or plastic sleeve housing the item instead of the item itself. Avoid letting your personal collections get scattered or misidentified. 

General Recommendations

The following are some suggestions to help you preserve your “records of enduring value.” However, the most important thing to remember in preservation is that these items deteriorate no matter what you do, but if you can manage use, light, pollution, and high fluctuations in temperature and humidity, you will prolong the life of the materials.

Handling

  • Handle photographs with gloves or hold them at the edges.

Cleaning

  • Use a soft brush to wipe away dirt.

Storage

  • Do not store items in attics or basements, or near kitchen or bathrooms. Use a dehumidifier in damp areas. Storage should be in a cool, dark, dry, stable environment. A stable environment makes all the difference; rapid fluctuations in temperature and humidity do the most damage.
  • Place items in containers--like filing cabinets, boxes, and folders--to protect from dust, dirt and light. Dust and dirt can abrade surfaces and attract mold and insects. Light fades, discolors, and makes paper brittle. This damage is permanent and irreversible.
  • Use folders instead of envelopes to reduce damaging the edges and corners of documents and photographs.
  • If using plastic preservation supplies, look for chemically stable plastics with the terms "polypropylene," "polyethylene," and "Melinex."
  • Unfold and flatten papers and photographs.
  • If a photograph or document is fragile, enclose it in an archival plastic sleeve (i.e., 2-3 sides of the enclosure are left open). Never encapsulate or laminate anything in plastic (i.e., do not allow the enclosure to be completely sealed shut).
  • Photographs specifically...
    • ‚ÄčBefore storing, remove photographs from mats and mounts, if it is possible to do so without damage.
    • Store color and black-and-white photographs separately.
    • Store black-and-white prints and negatives in buffered folders (8.5 pH).

Display

  • If framing, use archival supplies; look for the terms "acid-free," "lignin-free," and "buffered."
  • Framed works should not be in direct sources of natural or fluorescent light, and don't leave materials "on display" long-term as they will become damaged over time from environmental exposure.
  • Never use “magnetic storage albums.” If you must mount photographs, use acid-free paper and corners; never use glue or tape.

Reproductions for Preservation

  • Keep highly acidic items, like newsprint or documents printed on older recycled paper, away from other materials. To preserve this content long-term, photocopy them onto acid-free and lignin-free paper.
  • Make duplicate copies of all audiovisual materials (e.g., film, audio, video, photographs), but be sure to keep the original “master.”
  • If the information contained on an audio or video recording is important (e.g., a family history), a paper-based transcript should be made of the content.

Digital Preservation

What to Save

  • Identify where all your digital files are stored, including personal websites, social media sites and services, and email
  • Use the same specifications as you would for analog materials to determine what types of materials to save, whether they be documents or photographs, drafts or final versions, audio or video files
  • If saving a limited amount of information from social media, Web sites or email, use the "save as" command to export the content as individual files; if saving entire pages or sites on social media and Websites, check into automatically exporting them as a series of linked files
  • If there are multiple versions of a file, for instance, save the one with the highest quality
  • For video, use a production-quality codec: Apple ProRes, Avid DNxHC or similar, with a widely-used wrapper like .mov
  • If possible, save files in an open format: .xml, .pdf, .txt, .tif, .jpg, .JPEG-2000, WAV, MOV are examples
  • Save metadata for files, including site names, dates created, email headers (to, from, subject, date/time)
  • Tag image, audio and video files with names of people and descriptive subjects
  • Give the files you choose short but meaningful file names, including who, what, when and where, as applicable
  • Even better, create a consistent file naming system for the files: family_disney_vacation_may2016.jpg or letter_from_grandma_august2000.pdf

Storage

  • Create a directory/folder structure on your computer to put files you want to save
  • Save files on your computer and at least one other device, such as CD, DVD, portable hard drive, or in the cloud
  • Write a brief description of the directory structure and files and put a copy with other important papers in a safe location
  • In addition to saving multiple copies, keep copies at other locations, like a friend or relative's house or in the cloud, so that if disaster strikes one location your files in the other place should be safe
  • Check your files once a year to ensure they are still working
  • Create new copies every 3-5 years and save in newer file formats if necessary

Mold

Most importantly, be careful to protect yourself!

  • If there is any mold, spread out the items in a well-ventilated area away from living areas and let them dry.
  • Brush off the mold when dry.
  • Always wear a mask; if you are particularly susceptible to mold, also wear other forms of protective clothing (e.g., eyewear, apron, gloves).

The more often you are exposed to mold, the more likely you are to have a bad reaction, so always be safe! Remember also that sometimes an item can be too badly damaged to save, or is so badly damaged that a professional conservator needs to be involved.

Finding a Conservator

Many times, collections care can require the help and direction of a professional conservator. A conservator can diagnose problems, provide specific treatments when necessary, prescribe a maintenance plan, and advise on proper conditions for the display and storage of materials. You should select a conservator in the same way you would choose a doctor, lawyer, or any other professional:

  • Make sure the conservator’s training and area of expertise are appropriate for your needs
  • Check references
  • Ask questions

For assistance, visit the American Institute for Conservation's Find a Conservator website or the Northeast Document Conservation Center's Conservation Services for Private and Family Collections.

Instruction Videos

Paper Care and Preservation

 

Preserving Family Documents

Alpena County Library shows simple techniques in safe-keeping and preserving family papers, letters, photographs, textiles, and books. Learn what "archival quality" means in regards to the products used to protect your treasured Items and where to find them.

 

Preserving Family Photographs

This Friends of the Library workshop at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) covered basic archival principles for preserving family photographs. Participants learned the basics of arranging, describing, storing, and digitizing photographs for long-term preservation.

 

Preserving Your Personal Digital Photographs

Presented by the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) for Preservation Week 2012

Vendors

Here are a few vendors through which you can obtain the types of enclosures discussed in this post. Please note that inclusion in this list does not constitute endorsement of the vendor by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum or its Library and Archives.

Additional Resources

For more information on archival preservation at home, see:

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum | Library and Archives
2809 Woodland Avenue | Cleveland, OH 44115 | 216.515.1956 | library@rockhall.org