Friday, November 05, 2010

Good stewardship of your historical collection

A fire broke out at the "barn" behind the historic Newland House in Huntington Beach last Saturday. Nobody was injured, and the circa-1980s building itself maintained only a couple thousand dollars worth of damage. But for a while there I was worried about the important and unique collection of local historical materials stored on the second floor.
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Luckily, according to Jerry Person (historian and docent at the site) that material also survived unscathed.
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I'm greatly releived that everything turned out okay, of course. But this incident once again underscores the fragility of historical collections like this that are tucked away all over Orange County.
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In the case of the Huntington Beach Historical Society (which has control of the Newland site), nobody has had real access to the collection for research in over a decade. With no staff or even active members to provide regular access, some materials have simply been loaned out (which may account for crate of early 1900s glass negatives that may have gone missing). But most have simply been locked away in a room with no temperature or humidity controls.
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I point this out not to point fingers at HBHS, but rather to say that this kind of situation isn't as rare as you'd think for small historical collections. In these cases, we're often letting our heritage simply rot away,... If a fire doesn't get to it first.
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But let's assume for a moment that you've been put in charge of a collection like this yourself. What can be done about it?
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First, scan EVERYTHING at high resolution (at least 1200 dpi for photo prints, and much higher for slides and small negatives). Then, burn those scanned images onto archival gold DVDs. Then distribute those DVDs to various places. If something happens to the original photos and documents, you want the copies to be somewhere else -- safe!
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Making digital scans of the documents also means you won't have to handle the originals as much in the future, which also helps extend their lifespan.
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Then, store your original materials in a constantly temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Use a combination of heating and air conditioning to keep things at a steady 68 degrees. Use humidifiers, dehumidifiers and hygrometers in conjunction with one another to monitor and maintain a low and steady humidity level in the archives. (40% is about ideal.) Doing these things will not only help curtail insects and mold, but will also keep materials from being destroyed by the simple expansion and contraction that comes with changes in humidity or temperature.
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And finally, do your best to make the contents and whereabouts of your collections known to the public (possibly by putting some basic information online) and then try to provide a least some access to those who wish to do research. Even "by appointment only" and very limited hours beat nothing at all.
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Plenty of books and classes and whole college degrees are offered on how to run a historical archive. But the steps listed above seem to me a sort of minimum to shoot for.
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If those steps can't be followed, please at least try to keep historic documents and photos somewhere with fairly low humidity and away from extreme temperature shifts.
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If even this cannot be accomplished, consider making your digital copies and then donating the original materials to a local Archive that has appropriate facilities and which provides access to the public.
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Future generations will thank you.
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[Note: See some additional good comments on this subject in the following post.]

2 comments:

DregerClock.org said...

I am relieved to hear that the fire did not destroy anything more than a little of the structure! I will shout a whole-hearted AMEN to your encouragement to digitally document our local historical documents and items and make them safe for the future!

giddy girlie said...

Glad to see that you're taking some thoughtful steps in preserving the archives! I've worked in file storage and imaging for many years and we've helped large businesses as well as small archives (one fun one was an upstate NY theater who wanted to preserve the old playbills and posters, but the paper was too fragile to touch/scan, so my tech guy rigged a special camera/scanner device). JPG is definitely a good place to start. It's a file type that will be around for a long while and if it's ever replaced, there will surely be a 'converter' of some type. Certain types of PDF files (PDF-A) are guaranteed to exist for hundreds of years. Because archiving affects more than just our history, but a lot of legal documents, etc. there is an increasing emphasis on preserving file types and media types.

My 2 cents is that you should always back up everything redundantly. Now that storage costs have come down so drastically, it's pretty easy to justify. Even if it's as simple as an external hard drive, DVD, CD, and maybe an online (offsite) storage.

Obviously, that doesn't help with physical objects, but in the event of a catastrophe, it would be better to have 200 pictures of an item that no longer exists (say, a vase) than nothing at all.