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What is preservation?

Preservation refers to the preventative procedures required to prolong the lifespan of your archive's collections, by protecting them from damage, loss and destruction. It is different to conservation, which refers to the procedures required to repair and treat already damaged material.

Deterioration in the long term is inevitable - nothing lasts forever, but with careful preservation we can help ensure documents survive to benefit future generations. This guidance is designed to give you some advice on how to preserve your archives and use the budget and resources you have available as effectively as possible.

It is important to remember that deterioration is a long-term process and you will not notice it on a week-by-week or even a year-by-year basis, but nevertheless it is happening.

The storage area


Light, whether sunlight or artificial light, causes archive material to fade, discolour and become brittle.

It is therefore important to keep items in storage areas with minimal exposure to light.

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • Keep items in boxes and/or other packaging. Further guidance on packaging.
  • Cover windows with thick curtains, blinds or window film
  • Ensure lights are positioned at least 30cm away from shelving to avoid heating up the materials
  • Switch lights off when the room is not in use

Temperature, humidity and air flow

High temperatures cause materials to deteriorate at a faster rate, whilst humid conditions allow mould to thrive. Rapid changes in temperature or humidity also makes the fibres in different items expand and contract. This leads to photographs and papers warping and curling, and causes ink to flake.

In an enclosed space, air can stop flowing. This can lead to a build-up of gases released from stored materials.

Additionally, pockets of stagnant air can become breeding grounds for mould.

Keeping the storage area's environment stable will help to reduce some of these issues. Heritage organisations constantly monitor their environmental conditions. Current standards recommend a room temperature of between 13-20 degrees celsius and 35-60% relative humidity. The further resources section includes more information on temperature.

However, for the purposes of your community archive, the most important things are to make sure:

  • Your storage area is cool, dark and dry prior to storing your collections
  • You can maintain these conditions during its ongoing use

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • Avoid housing archives in attics, basements or garages. Ideally the storage area should have thick walls, few or no windows and a solid roof or ceiling. These will all help to shield the storage area from changes in the outside environment. If storing in a house, a spare room may be the best option as the heating and lighting will not be used as frequently as in the rest of the house and the collection will be secure.
  • Think about where you keep the items in the storage area. Keep shelving units away from radiators, or walls adjacent to kitchens or bathrooms. It is also best to keep items off the floor and not directly touching the walls, as they will be vulnerable to damp. A dehumidifier will help keep the space dry but should not be left on when the building is not occupied.
  • There should be space between the top of the shelving and the ceiling, and between rows of shelving, to allow the air to move. Fans can keep the air flowing around the room but should not be left on when the building is not occupied.
  • It is best not to leave any doors open, other than for access, as this can affect the temperature of the storage area. Keep any windows closed for the same reason. However, it may be necessary to open doors and windows temporarily because of high temperatures.

Mould, dust and pests

Mould, dust and pests all pose particular threats to the lifespan of a collection. Mould thrives in warm and damp environments and can spread between items, often causing irreparable damage. Dust is abrasive and attracts moisture, leading to a risk of mould growth. Pests, such as silverfish, like to feed on materials like paper and glue, which will damage the records.

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • If you find any items suffering from mould infestation, it is vital that you isolate them from the rest of the archives. If they are still damp, they need to be dried out. You may wish to seek advice from a conservator. The further resources section includes more information on mould
  • Regularly dust and vacuum the storage area to reduce the build-up of dust
  • Always keep food and drink away from the collections - this is the best way to reduce pest activity and to avoid accidental spillages or other contamination
  • If maintenance work is required, cover the collections in plastic sheeting to protect them from dust and debris, and do a deep clean straight after the work is finished
  • You can use sticky insect traps to monitor the level of insect activity in the storage area and decide whether any action is needed

Fire and Floods

Fire and flooding are two of the most devastating risks to the safety of your collections.

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • Make sure you have a working and regularly tested smoke detector/fire alarm in your storage area
  • Never keep collections in proximity to open fires, gas heaters or exposed wiring
  • Box up as much of the collection as you can. Boxes will provide initial protection against fire and water damage.
  • Keep the items on a floor above the ground floor. Ensure there is a gap of at least a few inches between your shelving units' lowest shelves and the floor. These actions will ensure some delay against the effects of flooding.
  • Shelving units should ideally be made of metal to help protect them from fire (and pests)
  • Do not keep archives in rooms where there are exposed pipes, boilers, open drains or water tanks


Decide who and how many people have access to the storage area and how you will keep it secure, to protect the collections from theft and vandalism.

Collections may include records that are temporarily closed because they contain sensitive material, or at the request of the donor.

You will need to consider particular security arrangements for these.

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • Ensure the storage area has a lockable door, and agree a list of designated keyholders from your organisation
  • Record all items removed and returned from the store. Leave a retrieval slip in place of the removed item, noting what was moved, who moved it, and the date it was moved. See the section below for more details.
  • To minimise the risk of records being lost, you will need to keep a list of where each item is kept in the storage area. Specify the room they are kept in and give each shelf a unique reference number that can be added to an accession register, so that records can be located easily. Further guidance on adding items to your archive.   
  • It is wise to store sensitive records, or records closed at the request of donors, in a more secure area such as a safe, lockable cabinet or lockable shelving unit
  • For the storage of digital collections see the digitisation section 

Retrieval Slips

When you temporarily retrieve an item from your storage area, for use by a member of your group or by a researcher, it is a good idea to record its removal using a place marker, known as a retrieval slip. This ensures you can keep track of the items in your care, and acts as a deterrent against theft. Download a sample retrieval slip (Word doc) [15KB].

You can retain the retrieval slips so you have information on what collections are being used, by whom, and how frequently. This may help you when making decisions about copying material - if original items are used frequently, it may be a good idea to make copies to give out to researchers, to preserve the originals as much as possible. It also lets you know what research topics are popular with your researchers, which may inform your future collecting.

How to use retrieval slips:

  • Either a member of the community archive group, or a researcher, should fill in their name, the date of retrieval and the reference number of the item retrieved
  • Cut the slip in two and keep one section with the retrieved record. The other section should be kept in the record's location.
  • Once the record is returned, marry up the two slips again and file them with the date that they were returned
  • Keep a regular tally of the records that are retrieved. The information can be used to inform preservation and collecting procedures.

Storing collections: shelving

Good shelving is important to protect the collections from adverse environmental conditions and to ensure items can be located easily.

What you can do (in order of priority):

Shelving should fully support the collections stored on them (eg they should be big enough to hold maps and large/heavy boxes). Boxes of archive materials can be very heavy so ensure the shelves can take the weight.

Collections should be stored on open metal shelving which is secured to the floor and ceiling, but not fixed directly to exterior walls (to avoid damp spreading). If you are storing the archive in cupboards or filing cabinets, ensure they are opened regularly.

If you do not have metal shelving, store boxed material or bound volumes in wooden shelving or cabinets that are, preferably, sealed with a water-based varnish. Unvarnished wood can give off acetic acid, which causes chemical damage to archive materials and can make them deteriorate faster. You may want to consider medium density fibreboard (MDF), which is a board made from wood fibres bound with resin and is commonly used for building storage units. Zero-formaldehyde MDF is recommended for wooden shelving, as this does not release emissions that may cause damage.

Shelving should be open-fronted and easy to access. Open shelves also allow easy inspection and cleaning.

Storing collections: packaging

The further resources¬†section includes details of specialist materials and suppliers for storing your collections.

All boxes and folders provide initial protection from light, water, dust and grubby hands, and ensure related records are kept safely together. Consider using conservation-grade materials for more effective long-term preservation. Be aware these will be more expensive than regular materials.

Office storage boxes often contain material that affects the long-term safety of collections items. For example, cardboard boxes contain acids that can damage their contents over time; the plastic sleeves in photograph albums can degrade over time and produce a sticky residue that can damage photographs.

The most effective use of resources is to prioritise irreplaceable items.

Draw a distinction between:

  • A: items which you have copied from an archive or library
  • B: original documents or copies of documents where the original is in private hands

Use conservation-grade materials to package category B items, and regular materials for category A items.

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • Where possible use conservation-grade packaging which includes acid- and lignin-free boxes. (Lignin is a chemical in wood pulp that can cause paper to degrade over time). Conservation-standard boxes can also provide some protection against sudden fluctuations in humidity or temperature.
  • Office packaging can be used initially to provide some protection against damage, pests and light. However, it should be replaced as soon as you have the resources to do so, for category B items (above).
  • Ensure boxes are appropriately-sized and the documents fit comfortably. Do not overfill boxes so they break or become too full to handle. Ensure the lid is resting on the sides of a box, rather than on top of the contents.
  • Use polyester sleeves from a conservation supplier for photographs, slides and transparencies. PVC plastic sleeves will degrade over time and damage their contents.
  • Roll large maps and plans around acid-free cardboard tubes to avoid them being crushed in storage. A synthetic fibre sheet called Tyvek can also be used to wrap rolled items to protect from dust and water.
  • Store hardback volumes standing upright. Avoid storing them at an angle as this will put strain on the spines, and do not pack them too tightly on the shelf. Oversized volumes (A3 size or larger) can be stored horizontally to put less strain on their spines.
  • Remember that once documents are decanted into archive folders they will take up more space, so you may have to decant one original box's worth into two or more archive standard boxes. Don't cram folders in!
  • You don't have to store the documents from one collection all in the same space. It depends on the storage you have available. For example, you could store A4 size documents in boxes on a bay of shelves, digital files on the cloud and maps and plans in a plan chest or on customised shelving. As long as each box, folder, map, object or digital file has a reference number that can be traced to the collection's catalogue, i.e. it is intellectually together, the collection doesn't have to be physically together.

Storing collections: recording location and labelling

It is useful to have a locations list, which should tell you the current location for each item or file in your archive. It should have a location code whose format is easily distinguishable from the reference number of the archive collections. You could format it by storage area, then bay, then shelf, for example: Storage Room A, bay 2, shelf 4, could be written as location A/2/4.

Record an item's location code on its catalogue entry, then on your location list make sure that item's catalogue reference number is recorded next to that location. This allows you to cross-reference between the two and make sure you have the right details. If you change an item's location, make sure you update it in both places as soon as possible.

View an example location list (Word doc) [22KB]

Label each document individually with a 2B pencil, stating its reference number eg HS/1/1/2.

Each document in a file should be kept together if possible (unless they are different formats), eg putting all the documents in the file HS/1/1 into a number of folders. If there is more than one folder, label each one with what is in there, eg. HS/1/1/1-4 into one folder and HS/1/1/5-8 into another. Number each folder so you know how many there should be, eg "1 of 2" and "2 of 2"

Fit as many folders into a box as will fit comfortably. On the box you can put an adhesive label with the contents in, for example if the box contains the above two folders, you can put 'HS/1/1/1-8'

Put the box in its intended location, eg shelf A/2/4. Each shelf should be labelled for clarity.

Storing collections: health and safety

Consider the health and safety of everyone who has access to the storage area.

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • Risk-assess your storage area for health and safety issues. The suggestions here may not be exhaustive.
  • Keep heavier items on 'middle' shelves. This means you do not have to stretch to pull them off high shelves, or risk straining your back by lifting them off lower shelves.
  • When transporting records, only carry one box at a time. For bigger loads use a trolley if possible.
  • You may need equipment to access items on higher shelves - never stand on a chair.
  • More than one person should be available to move large, bulky and heavy items.

Making use of the collections

Handling techniques

Collections are kept so that they can be accessed and used in the future. Unless copies are made, they are likely to be handled frequently, which can lead to deterioration.

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • Paper is relatively robust and, if handled correctly, can survive for a long time. When handling paper, you can use your bare hands. They should be clean and dry (do not handle records if you are wearing sun cream or moisturiser). Use a soft pencil (2B) rather than pens for making notes, so that ink doesn't transfer from your hands to the paper.
  • When handling photographs, polaroids, transparencies, film and magnetic tape, it is best to wear gloves, as salt from your fingertips can react with chemicals on their surface and cause discolouration and staining. Ideally, you should wear medical-grade gloves, as they provide better dexterity and grip. Cotton gloves have fibres that may get caught up on the documents, reduce manual dexterity and need regular washing as they get dirty quickly.
  • Assess items for any weak or fragile points before moving them. Hardback books should be placed on a book cushion or similar support to protect the spine when opening. Pages, maps and plans should be held down with soft weights.
  • Some holders of digital data, such as CDs, can be affected by contact with skin. Carry CDs by their rims and avoid touching the 'data' side of the disc. Keep CDs in their cases when not in use.

Copying documents

A good way of ensuring archives are protected is to make copies of them, particularly items that are regularly requested by researchers. Copying ensures the originals are not over-handled and can increase and diversify access to a wider audience. Digital copies can be displayed or shared online, and physical copies can be displayed in exhibitions.

Just as paper and photographs need to be preserved for future use, so does digital material. However, digital files require more active management, as there are many factors that can affect them. See the digitisation section for further details.

No form of copying should cause damage to the original item. For example, putting documents through the rolls in a photocopier risks damaging them. Use a flatbed scanner or a digital camera to copy original items.

Displaying documents

Public display is a great way of raising awareness of your archives but can provide some challenges to the preservation of displayed records.

What you can do (in order of priority):

  • Display copies of items to avoid damage to the original, especially photographic material
  • If displaying original documents, ensure they are properly supervised and/or displayed in locked cases
  • If the use of originals is unavoidable, minimise their exposure to light, eg by covering them up outside of opening times
  • It is best not to store volumes open for long periods - change the pages selected for display regularly
  • Any handling should be done in line with the principles listed in the handling techniques section (above)

Disaster planning

Despite all your best efforts, there may come a time when there is an emergency that threatens the safety of your collections. For example, a pipe in the building breaks and the storage area becomes flooded, or pests manage to get into the storage area and destroy parts of the collection.

Thinking ahead will make sure everyone knows what to do and minimise damage.

Create a disaster plan which:

  • Is simple to access and use in an emergency
  • Sets out actions required
  • Details who is responsible for which tasks, along with their contact details
  • Lists which items are a priority to secure and make safe, and where they are kept

Writing a disaster plan

  • Assess the most likely risks and draw up a plan to help recovery after a disaster
  • Take any action you can to address the risks without waiting for a disaster
  • Know your storage area including switches, valves and stopcocks for your utilities
  • Include a list of keyholders - assess these by proximity
  • List the addresses and telephone numbers of people who can be contacted in an emergency - assess these by proximity.
  • Have a current location list to ensure you know what's in your archive and where
  • Identify priority collections or items to inform what to salvage first
  • Identify the space, equipment and materials needed to salvage, know where to get it or have certain things prepared on site
  • Identify where the archives could be relocated - another part of the building or a separate site
  • Remember to review and update your plan if anything changes
  • Store the plan in multiple locations

Disaster planning resources

The following sites have useful resources for creating disaster plans:


Your disaster plan will also need to record the immediate steps to care for your archives after an emergency.

  • There are four key activities for the salvage of damaged objects:
  • Salvage- rescue the material as quickly as possible.
  • Sorting - an allocated space will be needed for this task.
  • Treatment - such as air drying.
  • Stabilising/packaging for freezing - for items that are thoroughly wet and cannot be air dried immediately.

Remember that different materials will need different actions.

Salvage actions

  • Deal with the incident and liaise with emergency services if needed.
  • Call your emergency contacts for assistance.
  • Carry out an initial damage assessment and take photographs of the incident.
  • Assess your priorities for salvage.
  • Set up an alternative storage area if needed.
  • Begin initial treatment.
  • Document and remove collections to an alternative site if required.

In the aftermath of a fire:

  • Prioritise wet items initially. When all wet items have been salvaged, attention can turn to smoke and fire damage.
  • Ensure all fragments are gathered and kept with the object.
  • Get advice from a conservator over treatment options. Smoke residues can be removed through careful cleaning, but advice should be sought for this.

In the aftermath of flooding:

  • Any material which is in boxes, drawers or an enclosure should be checked immediately - it may be that the contents are not wet. If so, remove these into a new box or temporary crate, together with the original box label.
  • Do not attempt to separate sodden clumps of documents
  • Place documents face up, flat and on blotting paper to dry
  • Keep books as you found them - whether open or shut
  • Ventilate items to dry. Assess whether any items need freezing if they are too wet to be air dried immediately.
  • Do not allow photos to dry in contact with another surface - lay loose photographs flat, and face-up. Fan out albums to air dry upright.

Emergency Kit

It's a good idea to put together an 'emergency kit' of equipment and materials that would be useful if an emergency happens. This will allow you to be more prepared and reduce the risk of damage to your collections. View a copy of the Norfolk Record Office's emergency kit list. Please note you will not need to purchase all of this yourself! Just assemble what you can with the budget and resources you have available.  

Preservation planning checklist

  • Using the guidance in this section, undertake a preservation survey of your current collection storage. Note down areas where you are already doing well and areas which need improvement.
  • Where improvement is needed, itemise what can be feasibly done with current budgets and resources, and the areas that require extra budget or resources before they can be improved
  • Make a priority list of areas that need immediate intervention to prevent damage or deterioration. Focus budget and resources on improving these.
  • If needed, seek further advice, eg by posting on the Norfolk Archives Network Forum

Further resources

Some aspects of preserving your collection will require specialist help or materials. Here is a list of useful links and websites, including more in-depth professional guidance, resources, equipment suppliers, and details of local conservators, including the team at the Norfolk Record Office, who may be able to assist you.

Professional guidance

Digital preservation resources

Just as paper and photographs need to be preserved for future use, so does digital material.

Norfolk Record Office: Conservation Collection Care


Telephone: 01603 222 668/670

Preservation training video

You can view a training video on preserving community archive collections on the Norfolk Record Office's YouTube channel. This video will focus on the key points covered in the Preservation section of the Community Archives Toolkit.

Watch the training video. (opens new window)

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