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Preservation

The storage area

Light

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

Security

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.

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.

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