It is refreshing to get out of the archive building on occassion and into the community. What I most enjoy is the act of sharing the knowledge we have as Archivists to enable communities to become better stewards (or kaitiaki – guardians) of their collective memories. It also serves to reinvigorate my enthusiasm for archives when I get back into the office.
I have had the privilege of assisting some community club’s and event organisers that have been in the district for a reasonable period of time. Some of their archives had the potential to relate to founding time periods and events in the district. I have also had the privilege to work with families who are trying to figure out where to start with a relatives house that has been left for them to pack up.
All the above had the similar starting issues around:
- Not knowing what they had that might be of archival value
- Environmental concerns impacting potential archives
The question from all was – where do I start?
List it – what have you got?
Do an inventory of the records. How much have you got, where is it, what is it, who created it, what for, what condition it is in, why keep it (regulatory, historical, administrative), where is it. Go to the downloads page for a spreadsheet to help with this. Understanding what you have first will help significantly with decisions about what to keep and what potential preservation attention needs to be given going forward. See the downloads page for a handy template to help capture a preliminary list.
Protect it – what condition is in it?
What’s happening in the environment where the potential archives are being held. What is impacting on the condition of the potential archives? Put in actions to minimise, isolate or preferably, eliminate the impact.
For the family dealing with the relatives house, it was a matter of protecting the records first by getting them out of the detrimental environment (grandma’s shed) to ensure the issues were not impacting on them further before we had a chance to list them.
In this case it was a matter of silverfish infecting the records. My advice was to move the records out of the environment that was the perfect breeding ground to the problem. The family would do a high level listing as they went so they could track what they had, the order it was in and where it was going. They would use a clean processing area to move the records into for inspection where the records would be cleaned, freezer treated, re-boxed in new boxes and held in a new environment until the original holding area could be rectified and an in depth listing completed before moving them again. There is no point doing all that hard work to then put the archives back in a non-suitable environment. Due to the severity of the infection I had suggested freezing the records (where appropriate) to ensure all silverfish were eliminated before re-boxing.
In regard to freezing we have a frost free freezer at our archive for such uses – specifically for paper archives. Photographs and other materials may not be suitable for this treatment! This is another topic altogether. For paper – we wrap the documents in plastic bags, label them and place them in the freezer for one to two weeks. It is imperative to ensure that no ice forms on the bags or inside the freezer as this introduces the potential for water to damage the paper which clearly we want to avoid. Slowly defrost the records, inspect, re-clean, box (new boxes not the old ones) and label. It is during this time that a more detailed listing would be completed and decisions made about what archival value the items have. Could they have done this prior to any costly or time consuming cleaning, re-boxing etc. Absolutely yes, especially some disposal decisions to begin with. However my concern in this case was if the process was rushed there was no going back if a decision to dispose was later realised as a mistake. In my mind, I would rather hold too much than make disposal decisions under pressure. Should items identified as high archival value have been prioritised first? Yes – if the family had known what they were holding and where the high value archives were in amongst the deluge of records.
Again for me – knowing what you have to begin with is key to making a start on your archives.
There are simple things that are community groups, businesses and families can do to be better stewards of their archives. It doesn’t take much to share the art of archiving and I am happy to provide advice where I can to encourage better stewardship of our collective memories. Feel free to contact me for advise or re-direction to someone with the expertise to assist with your particular question.
Recognition: Community photo by William White, Creative Commons Zero licence, published with thanks from www.arcavee.com
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