Caring for your Collection
Understanding how to care for your collections is one of the first things you need to consider when starting a community archive or heritage group. Whether its old photographs and letters, video tapes and cassettes or your group’s new Facebook page or website we need to be able to read about it today, tomorrow and in the future. Everyone in the group is responsible for collections care, as it helps to preserve what makes your archive uniquely important. Regardless of the size of your collection or where it is currently kept, a cardboard box filled with photographs under the bed or a secure store with rows of metal shelving and archive boxes, a few basic steps will keep it safe.
Collections care planning is essential to preserving and keeping safe the core of what makes your community archive or heritage group special. The key to success with caring for your collection is realising that every item is of equal value regardless of its age or cost and everything in your collection needs to be treated with respect.
National Records of Scotland Conservator, Peter Dickson, introduces tips and suggestions on how to start caring for your collections in this short video:
You can also find out how to care for your digital collections:
Web archiving allows websites, including sites of community archives and heritage groups to be collected, preserved, accessed and navigated by users. Web archiving is a powerful tool for storing information. Photos, videos and other interactive content are captured, archived and preserved and made available to your users. Often the information found on your webpages is only available through your group’s website as there are no paper copies.
Useful links on Web Archiving include –
First Steps. Writing a Collections Care Plan, what it should include:
- Creating a suitable environment for the preservation of collections
- Guidance on handling and storage of your collections
- Strategic planning for ongoing care – next steps.
Who is responsible?
Everyone plays a part in the maintenance and preservation of the collections. The Collections Care Plan is a working document and must be available to everyone working with the collections. It can be added to and annotated during the course of its lifetime to create a reference manual which sets out how you care for and conserve your collections. Most archives have collection care plans; they can vary in content and detail depending on the collection and its size. Once a plan is written it should be agreed by the Trustees or Board members. Specific jobs can be assigned in a Collection Care Plan.
Maintaining a clean archive store area is essential to preserving the quality of your collections. Often referred to as Housekeeping. Anyone using the collections should be supplied with a simple checklist of Housekeeping rules. It could include the following:
- Microfibre cloths (dry or dampened with clean water) are excellent for cleaning shelves, work surfaces, walls and windows. There is no need to use polishes, cleaning agents or spray unless advised by a conservator.
- Brushes and vacuums can be used to clean floors.
- Don’t eat or drink in the stores or when handling collections.
- Rubbish bins should be emptied.
- All work areas regularly cleaned by anyone using the store.
Housekeeping does not include cleaning objects in boxes or on open display.
Monitoring and controlling the environment will improve the condition and long-term preservation of your collections. The wrong environmental conditions can cause significant damage to collections. This control does not have to be expensive; often the simple option can be cheaper and better in both terms of installation, maintenance and time costs. The environmental elements that should be monitored are: Relative Humidity (RH) Temperature and Light, as well as Air Pollution and Pests. There is much written about this and it’s a good idea to start with a basic introduction to the subject:
Take your time and use common sense when handling the items in your collections and this will ensure they are not damaged though mishandling. Where possible, follow these basic guidelines:
- Create space to allow for handling the collections.
- Always make sure your hands are clean and dry before handling objects (remember, wearing gloves may compromise dexterity and may not always be the best approach)
- Ask for help when handling awkward or heavy objects.
- Consider potentially hazardous material, such as mildew and use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment, such as face masks or gloves. Don’t take risks.
Good, sensible packing protects collections. When storing paper, choose the most appropriate method for your collections. You could keep your items in small bundles, inside high-quality plastic sleeves, acid-free card folders and large boxes or drawers. Fragile three-dimensional items can be wrapped in acid-free tissue.
Any storage materials in direct contact with paper items need to be high quality and recognised as safe to use with archive material. If they are not, damaging substances can transfer onto your paper items and cause discoloration, staining and embrittlement.
Invest in good quality archival standard folders and boxes. They may cost a little more, but they save you the expense of trying to restore damaged items and preserve your collections for future generations. See the list of conservation suppliers. Paper and card can be easily labelled with a soft 2b pencil and are often cheaper than plastic. Plastic, however, is often transparent, so items can be viewed with minimal handling, especially good for photographic collections. Don’t use plastics on loose media such as charcoal or soft pencil as static can remove loose media from the paper.
We don’t endorse any suppliers of conservation materials and storage; however, you may find it helpful to look at these suppliers’ catalogues.
Caring for your Collection
This video follows guidance provided by NRS conservators Hazel and Pete during the conservation workshop on the Archive Tour. It gives advice on cleaning and storing your collection. Cleaning and storage materials were provided at the workshop. In the short video you will see:
A single paper sheet from an archive collection is surface cleaned, creases reduced and pressed. Once flat, the paper sheet is placed in a polyester enclosure. Repeat this process for all the paper documents and store together in an archive box(es). This will assist with their long term preservation and avoid mishandling.
Blotting Paper – pH neutral, highly absorbent thick paper
Wool felt – high density and smooth material. It’s not essential, blotting paper is a good alternative
A soft brush – a natural bristle is best.
Pieces of Chemi-Sponge or Smoke sponge – made from vulcanized natural rubber
Bone Folder – a really useful multifunctional tool. Also available in vegan friendly material Teflon or PTFE
Weights – buy or make your own. Easier to use lots of smaller weights rather than one large weight.
Polyester Enclosure – Chemically inert and won’t yellow with age. 75 microns is a good choice of weight for most documents.
Any information on conservation treatments is intended for general guidance only and must never be considered a substitute for advice provided by a conservator or other qualified professional. To find a qualified conservator contact the Institute of Conservation: https://icon.org.uk/
SCA does not accept any responsibility for any damages that may occur as a result of this video.
Once you have mastered the basics of caring for your collections, think about a strategic plan for their long-term preservation. This may include: condition survey of your collections, emergency planning in case of a disaster, exhibition and display of your collections or digitization and creating an online catalogue. For inspiration, take a look at the some of these collection care plans –
A note on accreditation standards. Aim high and see if you can fulfil the collection care criteria to become an accredited archive.
- PD 5454:2012 Guide for the storage and exhibition of archival materials (British Standards Institution, 2012)
- The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping (Butterworth-Heinemann; The National Trust 2006(Revised 2011) ISBN 1907892189)
- The Care of Fine Books (Greenfield, J. Skyhorse Publishing, 2014, ISBN 162873793X)
- The Museum Environment, 2nd edition (Thomson, G. 1986, Butterworth)
- The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: traditional and digital color prints, color negatives, slides, and motion pictures (Wilhem H. Preservation Publishing Company, 1993, ISBN 0911515011 / 0911515003)