The purpose of this chapter is to raise an awareness of issues associated with the preservation and conservation of permanently valuable and other important public records stored in any county.
The Society of American Archivists defines preservation and conservation as:
Preservation = The totality of processes and operations involved in the stabilization and protection of documents against damage or deterioration and in the treatment of damaged or deteriorated documents. Preservation also may include the transfer of information from one medium to another, such as paper to microfilm.
Conservation = The act of restoring a document and one aspect of an overall preservation program. Conservation treatment generally is used to stabilize materials in their original format by chemical or physical means. (Because conservation is a complicated process, though, treating any records with enduring historical value by anyone other than a professional conservator is not recommended.)
In short, preservation is about maintaining records as they are (by protecting them from decomposition or damage), and conservation is about restoring them to what they were by countering the damage that has already been done to them, whether by natural or human actions.
Assessing Environmental Conditions
A site survey is an evaluation of the suitability of work and storage environments for safety, security, stability of temperature and humidity levels, fire detection and suppression, and disaster prevention. A site survey documents areas that need improvement in order to be proper storage environments.
Surveys assess the following criteria:
Some well-known enemies of paper and other records:
Pests: Insects, mold and mildew result from improper maintenance of storage areas. Food and drinks in storage areas attract insects and rodents.
Mold and Mildew: High humidity encourages mold and mildew. Once mold or mildew is allowed to grow, the environment is contaminated, perhaps forever. Records stored in a facility where mold or mildew has been found must be moved. Even after a move (which is usually expensive), spores may blossom on the records in a new location. If the records are permanent, professional mitigation personnel, with special breathing machines, chemicals, protective clothing, etc., must be called in to remedy the problem. Such services cost many tens of thousands of dollars. It is far better to do all that is possible to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place.
Sunlight and ultraviolet (UV) light: Light fades and discolors paper. Ultraviolet shields are available to shield fluorescent light tubes. They are inexpensive to purchase and easy to install. If a facility is being equipped with lighting, and there is a choice of which type of light is to be installed, the preference is to choose incandescent lighting, like the kind found in home lamps. This type is far less harsh for the records. In addition, the advantage in choosing incandescent lighting is that separate switches or separate pull cords can control which areas of the storage area are lit. As for sunlight, one has only to think about what happens to a newspaper that is left on a porch for a day or two. The resulting discoloration is what will also quickly happen to paper records which are exposed to sunlight.
Air flow: Air streaming onto records can cause them to deteriorate by changing the temperature and humidity around them. Air ducts can be diverted, or boxes of non-permanent records can be placed nearest the ducts so that they become deflectors of the air away from more valuable records.
Permanent Paper Preservation
Some general guidelines for handling permanent paper records are as follows:
Photographs often are among the most important historical records in an office and they present unique challenges. Photographs range from early tintypes, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, and black and white to color pictures and slides or the latest digital photographs. Photographs are physically and chemically more complex than paper materials. A print or negative is composed of a base material, usually paper or film, coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. Over the years, different substances have been used for the base material and the emulsion. Photographs are subject to deterioration from chemicals left after processing, careless handling, and exposure to light and heat. The instability of color dyes makes color photographs transient or non-permanent. It is difficult to convince people that the color photographs of their weddings, children, or other significant people and events in their lives will fade, often in as soon as 25 years. These photographs will deteriorate even faster if they are on desks or furniture exposed to sunlight or fluorescent lighting, or if they are stored in photo albums that are not acid-free.
Following these basic practices will extend the life of photographs:
Bound volumes and books are composed of a variety of materials and can require complex preservation measures. In the U.S., during the earliest years of bookmaking, the paper was made from rags. This paper is more stable - even today - than the paper made in the last 125 years or so. Over the years, cheaper construction materials were used to create bound volumes, making paper production far easier, quicker, and cheap enough for everyone to have access to as much paper as they want. However, the wood pulp-based paper and the chemicals used to create it cause rapid deterioration. Regular handling and improper storage accelerate deterioration and damage. Newsprint is the most unstable paper of all. One has only to consider what happens to a newspaper left out on the front porch for a few days, in sun or rain, to understand how unstable it is.
Extensive measures, if needed, should be undertaken by a professional conservator. Some methods professional conservators and archivists use to slow down the deterioration process are listed below:
Conserving Electronic Records
Master copies of records in an electronic format must be kept in some manner so that access is assured for the full retention period indicated on a Records Retention and Disposition Schedule. Long-term storage of records held in electronic formats presents numerous challenges. While information stored in an electronic format may have a permanent retention, the media are not considered permanent. Most electronic storage media are expected to last from a relatively few years (disks) up to as long as 20 or more years for some CDs and optical disks. The information is what is being managed, not the media. Data (information) might well have to be migrated (updated or changed) to another medium before its retention period has been reached. Before any migration to a format that is not eye-readable (especially electronic or digital), the vendor must assure the government office that migration plans are built into the specifications and pricing, and include guarantees against any data loss or drop out in process.
Acquiring Storage Supplies & Contacting Professionals
Acid-free folders and envelopes, durable boxes, colored record labels or any number of record storage supplies that might be needed, are available from dozens of companies that manufacture and distribute storage supplies. Some of these may also be found at local office supply stores. Many Records Officers order their supplies from mail-order catalogs or through the internet.
A wonderful source of information can also be found by contacting a chapter of the Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA) nearest you (there are none in West Virginia at this time, but there are several in the surrounding states). The web site www.arma.org is a rich resource as well. Your colleagues who also manage records are generous with their time, their experiences, and their expertise.
Records that have been damaged by fire, water, or some other means, may require that professional conservationists be hired. Conservation can be expensive, but in some cases, the expense is necessary. The most important phone call after such a disaster should be to the State Archives. The State Archives maintains an up-to-date listing of companies and individuals with this kind of expertise.
1. Glossary, 1992.
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Records Management and Preservation Board