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How to Preserve Documents in Storage


What Is the Best Way to Preserve Historical Documents While in Storage?

Whether the problem is as simple as a family photo album starting to yellow or as complicated as a crumbling sheet of aged parchment, collectors and conservators often come to the same question: What is the best way to preserve historical documents in storage?

A preservation plan for a collection of paper documents, books, or photographs must consider both the physical and the future digital needs of the collection. Together with best practices in storing and the minimal handling of materials, digitization can increase the lifespan of fragile or deteriorating paper documents.

Safer storage options for historical documents

Because handling and use of historical documents risks additional deterioration and damage, an ideal method of true preservation is keeping originals out of common use. This can be done through a combination of physical storage and digital access to reproductions.

Archivists understand that digitization offers many benefits, such as ease of access, faceted search, and wide audience reach, but digitizing paper documents provides far more value to a collection than mere convenience. Proper digitization should be an ongoing part of a paper collection’s preservation plan. The benefits to the physical documents make digitization crucial to maintaining at-risk materials into the future.

What is a digital collection or digital library?

Searching for information

Best Practices for Preserving Paper Documents While in Storage

Proper storage requires consideration about everything that could come in contact with the documents. This includes the geographical location, building construction, temperature, light, packing materials, and so on. Knowing the potential risk factors when choosing storage methods can prevent unnecessary damage to already fragile documents.

While not every collection can or needs to be housed to meticulous standards, preservationists have a clear outline of the types of potential hazards to look for and various precautions available to mitigate risk to the collection.

Location Selection

Location refers to the physical location of the storage building and the environmental dangers that this area could pose to the building. While no place is absolutely safe from all natural or man-made disasters, it is possible to select storage locations that minimize known risks. Consider the environmental risk factors of the area. If flooding is a problem, a location outside all flood plains and known flooding zones is preferable. If wildfires or earthquakes are common, is the storage building prepared to withstand such disasters?

It’s not always possible to choose a new location for a collection. Budgets or accessibility may dictate the collection remains where it is. When that is the case, curators and preservationists need to mitigate as many risk factors as possible through other means, such as storing documents inches or feet above the ground to avoid flood damage or with extra support and bracing in case of earthquakes.

Interior Environmental Conditions

Sometimes the worst damage to a book or document comes not from disaster but poor environmental conditions. Temperature, humidity, light, and air pollution can cause serious harm to documents by accelerating the aging process. Depending on the medium in question, these settings may need to be adjusted.

The Library of Congress offers preservationists general guidelines for light, temperature and humidity, and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provides detailed ranges for temperature, humidity, and air pollutants. Books and other paper documents are best stored below room temperature, around 65ºF, with roughly 35% humidity, and minimal light exposure. Direct or bright lights should never be used in storage or research areas. Air filtration should be utilized to the best of the facility’s capability to remove or reduce acidic air particles or other damage-causing gases, such as sulfur dioxide or acetic acid.

Digitization: Maintaining Access While Utilizing Storage as Preservation

Historical documents are important for research and study, but that very use is often a danger to the collection. Digitization grants unlimited access to fragile materials without the risk of further deterioration through constant handling. This also increases the lifespan of materials in good condition, as all originals can be safely stored in the optimal environment. Through digitization, neither accessibility nor material safety needs to be sacrificed.

photos and genealogy documents

The concept of digitization is not new to the digital age. Early digitization techniques included microfilm, microfiche, magnetic tapes, and hard drives, but advances in storage capacity, capture hardware, and processing speed have improved digitization methods considerably. Digitization offers a way to preserve historical documents, or books, even if the physical items are too degraded to handle safely.

The National Library of the Czech Republic began their digitization efforts as a way to preserve acid-paper materials in their collection, first with microfilm and CD-ROMs and then, as technology improved, with magnetic tapes and digital media. In three years, they managed to digitize around 500,000 pages of manuscripts and acid-paper books and anticipated processing up to 1.6 million pages.

Similarly, the British Library Newspaper Collection, which includes newspapers from the 16th century to present day, found that by 2008 their collection suffered deterioration that left fifteen percent of the collection unusable. Another nineteen percent was at high risk of becoming unusable if not properly handled and supervised. The collection had an average user access of thirty thousand per year and insufficient storage capabilities and conditions. As part of their preservation initiative, digitization of the newspaper collection was a top priority to ensure the longevity of the materials in their care.

Are you considering digitization as part of a plan to preserve your historical documents?

Digitization shouldn’t be considered an addition to the collection, but as a vital part of the preservation plan to increase your collection’s availability and longevity. By utilizing digital methods of access, you can safeguard your collection for future generations. 

What Benefits Does Digitization Offer?

Combines Physical and Digital-born Collections

As more digital-born artifacts need to be archived for historical and cultural value, it’s important to find ways to merge the physical collections with digital-born collections. To meet the needs of readers, British Library Newspaper Collection planned to integrate digitized periodicals with digital-born newspapers. This allows a seamless transition to digital access of all materials evenly and ensures users don’t have to utilize multiple platforms to access a single collection.

Increases Collection

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and user-driven metadata of digitized materials provides users far more efficient and expansive research functionality. Faceted search capabilities allow users to find the information everywhere in the collection that relates to their topic, era, or person of interest with precision and without the hassle of paging through entire volumes or books. This also decreases the time a user handles at-risk documents to keep them safe.

Ensures Survival
of Documents

While no historian wants to imagine a priceless collection being destroyed, the consequences of disasters can be seen from the fire of Notre Dame to the destruction of irreplaceable indigenous language recordings at Museu Nacional in Rio de Janiero. Digitized backups mean that no matter the tragedy, the collection won’t be lost forever. While technological changes can make technology obsolete, the use of ISO standards ensures digital backups remain accessible.

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