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What’s the Easiest Way to Lose a Collection?

A collection can disappear before your eyes

That question seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? In fact, most people who come to Anderson Archival are looking for the exact opposite—the easiest and best way to preserve their collection for the long haul. But if most collection-owners really want to preserve their collections, keep them safe, and make them available to share, why do so many collections get lost in the chaos of daily life?

Because the easiest way to lose a collection is to do nothing. 

Too many collectors end up doing nothing for a lot of reasons. Let’s take a look at some of them.

I Just Discovered My Collection

It’s hard to preserve a collection you don’t even know about! But that means now is the perfect time to act.

It’s been who knows how long since your documents, photos, and books have been properly cared for, and worse, you don’t have any way to know how they were handled (or mishandled!) before they came to you.  It’s time to review the collection for items that need to be conserved and organize essential items for digitization.

My Collection Is Huge and Varied: I Have No Idea How to Start “Doing Something”

This is probably the reason we hear most frequently from clients. The sentiment is often followed by another: “Help!” Here are a few avenues to consider:
  • Work with a conservator or consultant for initial review.
    This archival expert can advise on organization, storage, items that need special care and handling, and the next steps to take.
  • Take a DIY approach.
    Sit down with family or other decision-makers to determine how you’d prefer to organize the collection, such as by date, person, type of media, or any combination of factors. Also determine what pieces are worth keeping, preserving, and digitizing.
  • Triage, divide, and conquer.
    Send damaged and fragile pieces to a conservator, and reserve essential items for digitization. While that is being done, sort, store, and come up with a plan for processing the rest in due time.
Especially with large collections, this process can take a long time. We’d be lying to suggest otherwise! But while all of these pieces come together and you slowly gain understanding of your collection, you are certainly not doing nothing.
Every step taken to care for a collection is a step away from losing it.

My Collection Is in Great Condition: I’m Not Worried

Isn’t it tempting to believe how your collection looks now is how it will look forever? That all of the information, images, and memories will always be there when you need them for reference or comfort?

Just ask the librarians at Alexandria, the docents of Brazil’s Museo Nacional, or countless other stewards who will give the same warning: what’s here today could be gone in a flash tomorrow. Fire, flood, vandalism, or simple carelessness can all result in a ruined collection or one that is simply just not what it used to be.

The best time to take steps towards preservation and digitization is when a collection is in great condition. That way you can rest easy knowing that how your collection looks now really is how it will look forever.

My Collection Is Too Frequently Used to Care For: I Can’t Do Anything

Having a collection of high public or private interest is a blessing, but in the field of preservation it’s also a curse! There are essentially two options for a busy collection, and weighing these options is going to be something that you, your patrons, and other decision-makers must grapple with.

Option One

The collection remains in circulation and active use. With each use, it sustains a little more wear and damage until information is lost. With no master digital copy to refer back to, the lost information (a line of text, a chunk of a page, or an entire volume) is gone forever. Poof.

Option Two

Pieces of the collection are rotated out of circulation for conservation repairs and digitization. Patrons may be frustrated when they find that something they want is temporarily unavailable, but once processed, the pieces can be returned to circulation. If they sustain damage again, they go back into the conservation rotation. If they become lost or too damaged for repair, the information they contained is accessible via its digital counterpart. They can also be put into storage, and researchers all around the world can access the digital versions, saving the originals from additional stress. The options for access are many, and the originals remain intact for posterity. No poof.

In this option, doing something will very likely cause some friction, and cost time and money. The end result of a collection that can stand the test of time, however, is well worth it.

My Collection Is Stored Safely: I’m Done!

That’s great, but, unfortunately, preservation isn’t a set it and forget it project. If you’ve already had the collection reviewed by a conservator, know it is in archival-safe storage, and have a master digital copy, you can check off a lot of boxes. But the truth is, you’re never fully done “doing something” for your collection.

Preservation professionals recommend regular reviews of your collection even when all signs point to good conditions and a safe collection.

  • Check for signs of new wear from climate fluctuation, pests, or dust accumulation.
  • Make sure storage containers remain in good condition.
  • Keep an eye on conditions in the surrounding environment. Even the best archival-safe box won’t do much against a major fire or flood.

I Have Digital Copies, So the Information Is Saved: I’m Done!

Having digital copies offers collectors a great sense of relief that no matter what happens to the physical collection, the information is safe and sound. But doing nothing more than having a digital copy can lead to tragedy later on.

Technology is constantly changing, and what was working fine ten or twenty years ago might not even turn on now. Hard dives can fail, external storage can sustain damage, and some file types may not work on modern computers. Don’t let your digital collection turn into an inaccessible paperweight. Pay as much attention to digital damage as you would physical damage.

  • Routinely access your digital collection to check for file corruption.
  • Check that all file types stored continue to work on modern computers. Update any that are at risk.
  • Make backups on a variety of mediums. A single flash drive doesn’t cut it.
  • Don’t leave all the copies in the same place. A fire can destroy computers as easily as books.
  • Transfer files to new storage as the existing devices become obsolete.

It can be easy to fall into the do-nothing trap, and sometimes you just don’t know where to begin. Have you been doing nothing with your collection? It’s time to start doing something! Give Anderson Archival a call and let’s talk about getting started.

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