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More Than Digital: Building a Preservation Plan

Historical collections need preservation plans

There are so many things to consider when choosing to preserve a collection, both in digital and physical format. Though the needs of digital preservation are not the same as those of physical preservation, it’s important to keep both sides in mind when building a preservation plan. Neglecting one could reduce quality and access to digital files, while ignoring the other could lead to document deterioration or complete destruction. Whether you’re a private collector or a large organization, having a thought-out preservation plan can increase the quality and longevity of your collection.

What Is a Preservation Plan?

A preservation plan is more than simply choosing where to store your collection or which items should be digitized first. A proper preservation plan should consider everything required to care for and maintain your collection’s physical and digital materials.

Simply having a preservation plan doesn’t mean that all is perfect in your collection.

Short-, medium-, and long-term goals keep your preservation plan evolving with the needs and best practices of the preservation industry.

With a plan as comprehensive as this, where do you even start?

Assessment of Your Preservation Needs

Until you know what you have, you can’t know how to preserve it. What’s called a “preservation needs assessment” is a great way to start building your preservation plan. By analyzing the work you’re already doing to care for and maintain your collection, alongside any problems that might have been overlooked, you can determine which steps you need to take right away and what you can address as time and funding permit to ensure the continued stability and accessibility of your collection.

A preservation needs assessment should include, but is not limited to:

  • A complete overview of the collection, including quantity, type, and condition of materials.
    • Note special requirements needed to house or preserve certain material types. Some materials could be at risk of fire, fading, or deterioration in non-ideal conditions.
    • Note items in need of repair and conservation treatment.
    • Look at how often the collection is used and which items are accessed repeatedly or not at all.
  • A walkthrough of the interior and exterior of any building(s) that stores your collection.
    • Look for cracks in the foundation, mold growth, insect or rodent activity, and any hazardous conditions that could cause manmade damage, such as exposed wiring near flammable materials.
    • Document what protections are in place to regulate the environment, react to emergency situations, or secure the collection against theft and unauthorized use.
  • An assessment of the storage materials housing the collection.
    • Check how many items are stored in acid-free, archival quality boxes or folders.
    • Note any damaged boxes or improper storage methods currently being used, such as items stacked together without any storage medium or oversized items crammed into spaces that are too small to fit them.
    • Document any items in need of immediate rehousing to safer storage materials.
  • An analysis of the care and handling procedures staff and patrons use when accessing the collection.
    • Determine if there are clear and written procedures for people to follow and if those procedures are satisfactory to the care of the collection.
    • Test how well staff are trained in these procedures.
    • See if staff has been trained in emergency response to natural or man-made disasters.
  • An overview of any digital materials in the collection.
    • Note whether these are born digital, digital copies of items physically in the collection, or digital copies of items not physically in the collection.
    • Check the file extensions of all digital items and the staff’s ability to access the information in those file types.
    • Record where the digital collection is located, on what medium it is saved, and how many copies of it exist.
    • Determine if digital materials are being used to prevent overhandling of the physical collection.
    • Note any present or future digitization efforts already in place, or if digitization is a viable option to reduce handling of the collection.

Each preservation needs assessment is different depending on the collection being assessed, but when you’re done, you’ll have the necessary information to create a preservation plan. During this process, carefully consider your priorities for remedying any issues the preservation needs assessment found. Dividing all remediation needs into short-, medium-, or long-term goals can help with prioritization.

  • What can be done immediately and with little to no cost?
  • What can be done in a reasonable time frame or might require adjusting your budget?
  • What must wait until sufficient staff or money is available?
  • What must be done immediately even though it will require putting off more easily completed remediation?

A preservation plan shouldn’t only focus on what needs to be fixed.

It should also include how you plan to continue the care and maintenance of all aspects that don’t need remediation. It should include policies on how to handle, grow, and access your collection. The more you have written down in clear language, the easier it will be to teach everyone using the collection what needs to be done and how to do it the right way. After all, the goal of a preservation plan is to keep your collection safe and in use for all who need it.

Get Help with Your Preservation Plan

Conservators across the country are skilled in performing preservation needs assessments and assisting in remediation of issues. Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC)’s course on preservation plans is invaluable if you decide to undertake this process yourself, or conservators are ready to partner with you to make the process easier. If you’re not certain you can afford a conservator, many grants cover preservation needs assessments for collections.

Once you’re ready to take action, it can help to work with a conservator for physical preservation remediation or a digitization vendor to ensure that digital copies of your collection are captured to archival standards.

Do you need help digitizing your collection as part of your preservation plan?

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