Ecology of the Archives: Preserving Your Past

Protecting Your Family’s Records

Most people know the basics of preserving their family treasures:  avoid touching the surface of photographs, protect fragile documents from damage, keep artwork out of direct light, and avoid huge temperature and humidity fluctuations where records are stored.  However, there are a few important points that are often overlooked:  

  •  Acid-free, really?  Many vendors of scrapbooking and office supplies sell something called “acid-free” or “archival tape,” but the application of this kind of tape will damage your photographs and documents.   The tape might be acid-free, but the adhesive is not.  The adhesive will discolor and stain your records, and it is very difficult to remove (and sometimes even conservators cannot remove it).  According to the NEDCC pamphlet 7.3 “Repairing Paper Artifacts:”

“Pressure-sensitive (self-adhering) tapes should be avoided. The adhesives on these tapes may cause staining over time and require toxic solvents and technical expertise for removal.” 

  • Digitization: There is a big push to scan your family treasures, and having a digital copy of your records definitely has advantages.  The biggest benefit of digitization is preventing repeated handling of the original record and therefore avoiding potential damage.   Scanning also provides quick access to the image and allows you to share your records easily with others.  Keep in mind that although scanning is easy and affordable, the digital image is not stable and does not take the place of the original.  Both born-digital and digitized records degrade (“bit rot”), storage media fail, and technology becomes obsolete and can no longer open programs used to view images.  Regularly migrate your digital images to new media, and if possible keep at least one copy at a separate location in case of disaster.  The original photograph or family record should still be maintained and steps taken for its preservation.  See an earlier blog entry for more information.   Also check out the Council of State Archivists list of “10 reasons why electronic records need special attention.” 
  •  Remember the metadata:  The description that is applied to a digital image or physical object is vital to being able to locate your records.  Don’t just scan a document or photograph and think that you will remember what each file contains; describe it (persons, places, dates, other relevant data) with sufficient detail that will enable you to find it again. 

Preserving Your County’s Records

View on one aisle in the Records Center.

View of one aisle in the Salt Lake County Records Center.

The Salt Lake County Archives resides in a 19,000 square foot building (478,296 cubic feet), with two levels of records storage.  Although the building was not originally constructed for housing records, we are still able to maintain minimal fluctuation in our heating and cooling.  Our heating and cooling systems operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to stabilize the temperature and humidity levels.  Both are regularly monitored and logged by staff. 

View of the first floor in Records Center. Metal track above is the floor of the mezzanine above.

View of the first floor in Records Center. Metal track at the top of the image  is the floor of the second story.

Because fires are always a concern to any archives, we have two separate fire detection systems.  A special system installed 6 years ago is so sensitive that smoke from last year’s wildfires in the region set it off.  The Vesda Air Sampling Detection System tests the air at regular intervals, allowing us to detect any smoke before our standard fire detection system would discover it.  The orange pipes seen in the image above is part of the Vesda system running underneath the metal floor of the mezzanine (second floor of records storage) above.  Of course, in the case of any fire, earthquake, or flood, a completed disaster recovery plan is the best friend of any archives or records center. 

Later this fall, we will be purchasing a dedicated upright freezer for all of the film and negatives that we maintain.  We will have an uninterrupted electrical supply powering this freezer (even during disasters). In addition to regular monitoring the temperature and humidity within the freezer, each records storage box will wrapped in a vapor-proof enclosure, creating  its own environment (which is also monitored) within each package to protect from any possible moisture accumulation.  Of course, all negatives will have either a hard copy or digital copies of the images created for researchers to use in the reading room, preventing the original negatives from having to be removed from the freezer and go through the freeze/thaw/freeze process.   


Page from Salt Lake County Chattel Mortgages.

Check out these online resources to help you protect your family’s history:


Family records in various formats:

Works on paper (including drawings, newspaper, prints, posters, maps, and more):

Another view of how an archives preserves the past:

This entry was posted in Preservation Resources, Records Management, Utah Archives Month and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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