Collection Processing: What Should I Do With This Thing?

So you have a collection of archival materials. Now what?

(Well, much depends on the “what” in question.)

Below are some brief recommendations for dealing with archival collections – both the expected and the unexpected. This list is in no way exhaustive, however. Keep in mind that each collection will have specific needs and requirements, and each archivist will have access to different types of materials for processing and rehousing. You’ll need to make big collection management decisions on a case-by-case basis – that’s what keeps the field interesting!

Do: Wear Gloves (or At Least Wash Your Hands)

Time was, archivists and curators wore white cotton gloves when working with delicate materials. That’s not common practice anymore, for two reasons. First, gloves made from fabric are thicker and slightly unwieldy, and can negatively impact the wearer’s ability to handle the objects with care. Second, they can wear out and any exposed fibers dangling off the glove can tangle or tear items that are exceptionally fragile.

If you want to wear gloves while handling items (and I usually prefer to), go with nitrile gloves in your size. A well-fitted glove acts like a second skin, making it easy for the wearer to feel each item and work with it gently. It protects the item(s) from fingerprints and the wearer from dirt, dust, and any other unsavory coating that may be covering the collection, which is a win-win for everyone. This offers additional protection if your hands get dry and cracked when handling paper, and likewise your materials from getting any chapped blood on them. Trust me, it happens.

No gloves? No problem – just be sure to wash your hands with soap and water before handling your collections.

Do: Make an Inventory List

The most exciting part of collection processing is the part where you investigate and sort through your materials. But it’s also the point in the shuffle where an item could get lost. We do our best to avoid this, but if it does happen, it’ll happen here. Before it does, make a list of everything in your collection until every folder, book, or bauble is accounted for.

Do: Spread Out

If you have the space, use it, because it will make the process of rehousing your collection so much easier. To say nothing of the freedom of movement it offers you as you place your items in order, make notes, and adjust things as you go.

No, seriously. Spread out.

Do: Save Original Packaging

Pop quiz: These two items are identical copies of the same publication. One was donated in the original mailing envelope. The other was not. See if you can tell which is which.

Tricky, right?

You should keep original packaging because it likely contains important geographic and temporal information about your materials. But its main job is the protection of the artifact it contains. Think of it like a glove for your materials. Yes, it might make rehousing a little more difficult because it increases the footprint of your items. But the benefits far outweigh the hassle. Keeping your materials in as good a condition as possible should be the top priority.

Don’t: Eat, Drink, or Be Merry

If you have a drink near your artifacts, you will spill it. Murphy’s Law will somehow make it so. Admittedly liquid damage isn’t the most difficult damage to reverse, depending on the materials with which you’re working. But it is also the fastest way to invite mold onto your items. Keep your drink(s) on another surface far away from your workspace: across the room, across the building, in the parking lot, wherever.

Food is subject to the same rule. I doubt that you’d want to eat your lunch after (or during) the handling of a century-old document anyway, but it’s advised that eating doesn’t happen in the same room in which collection processing occurs.

Don’t: Use Staples, Tape, or Glue

Archivists have written academic papers about staple usage in archives. As a student, I had to read them. The reader’s digest version is that staples – as they are made of metal and sharp at both ends – can prove hazardous to collections by tearing and rusting. Physical and cosmetic damage can occur as a result. Some archivists believe that staples should be actively hunted out and disposed of, regardless of their state of decay. Other archivists aver that if the staple looks like it might cause a problem, remove it; but if you have other more important things do to, the staple can wait. Innocent until proven guilty.

Note, please, that this is indeed a worthy conversation in the field. But will you, as a person, ever have to worry about it seriously? Not likely. My recommendation is to avoid staples, for no reason other than it’s easier to place paper and photos in a folder or storage box and not worry about staples rotting or ripping them. Same goes for glue and tape. If it’s already there, don’t remove it – you could damage the artifact in the removal process. But it’s not necessary to willfully add to your preservation process.

Generally speaking, keep adhesives far away from your artifacts, particularly if they’re paper-based. Most archives won’t even let you chew gum in their reading rooms and storage spaces. That’s how serious archivists are about sticky things near their collections.

Don’t: Store Materials Near Heat or Light Sources

There’s a reason that archives are often located in basements. Surprisingly, it’s not because basements are inherent storage locations where people stick their old stuff. It’s because basements (typically) don’t have something that other rooms have – something that lets in the one thing that will unfailing, irrevocably damage an artifact. That something is windows.

Windows let in light (of course they do). And light, of all things, creates the only kind of damage an artifact can sustain that is completely irreversible. Preservation companies are plentiful and exist to perform damage control on all kinds of materials. These professionals can help restore items affected by leaks or floods. They offer options for removal of pests of all shapes and sizes. Incredibly, they can even reverse some of the effects of fire damage. But there is no agency on earth that can undo damage inflicted by light.

If you take away nothing else from this post, take away this: do not store your sensitive materials in, or near, direct sunlight. The process will be slow and you won’t notice it until it’s too late, but you will indirectly contribute to the destruction of your items. Close the curtains, put it in a box, store it in a basement. But keep whatever it is you want to preserve away from the light.

Don’t: Get Creative

Even in your own storage spaces, you will find weird stuff. I have found a disarming amount of dried flowers in my boxes of personal memorabilia, although at no point did I make the decision that retaining dried flowers was something I intended to do with my life. Even weirder, I kept my wisdom teeth following my removal surgery, and there is absolutely nowhere I can store them that makes any sense. So regardless of how “archival” your personal collection might be or how well you remember What’s in this cardboard box, anyway?, there will be one or two (or several) items that throw you for a loop.

Case in point: this thing.

Honestly, no idea.

This is one of the items from the collection I’m currently processing. I must admit that I don’t know what it is, let alone what it was in its former life. In its present life, it’s some kind of facsimile placard sandwiched between a piece of cardboard and a sheet of thin plastic, both of which were glued together. I can barely read any of the descriptive information printed on it because it’s begun to rot inside its makeshift prison, which (even more sadly) makes this particular item basically useless as a contextual artifact.

What’s worse, I can recognize the logic of how this item came to this state. Some well-meaning person mounted it on cardboard thinking that the board would keep it flat (which it did). They then covered it plastic to keep it free from dust and/or moisture. In an ideal world, this would have worked. However, the world is far from ideal. The “packaging” created a weak seal that would have allowed moisture to enter but not evaporate, and at some point, the plastic lifted and moisture got in. Ultimately it led to rot, and here we are now.

This is an excellent example of the Occam’s Razor of archival preservation: the simplest method is often the best. There will come a time when you find something weird and you’re tempted to perform some even weirder salvage effort to preserve its weirdness. I would encourage you not to do this. Don’t start gluing, taping, or saran-wrapping your materials, no matter how well-intentioned your efforts are. Place your oddities in a folder or a lidded acid-free box. Keep them in a secure, unsealed envelope. Retain the original packaging if you have it. But don’t start reinventing the wheel when it comes to preserving your items. At best, you’ll waste resources that could be better-used otherwise; at worst, you could risk ruining your item(s). It’s better to keep the item as-is or to find a specific resource for preserving it, rather than MacGyvering a method that causes damage later on.

Finally, don’t get overwhelmed.

Yes, there are rules to archival preservation and it’s generally wise to follow those rules. But there will be times when the scope of your project will exhaust you, or you’ll feel under-equipped to handle your collection. You won’t have the right-sized box, or you’ll run out of acid-free paper. An item will pop up that you’ve never seen before and you won’t know what to do with it. Or – heaven forbid – you come across some staples. So what should you do?

Take a deep breath and don’t sweat it! All of this is completely normal, and it’s okay to feel nervous when taking responsibility for historical materials. It’s also okay to take a step back and re-evaulate your process when you feel the need. Reach out to individuals and organizations working in this field if you have questions or want some feedback, too. These folks are in business because they love this work, and they’re excited to share their expertise with others.

Remember, no collection processing experience is going to be perfect. But when undertaken carefully and thoughtfully, your efforts can truly change the game for your artifacts’ longevity. The time you put in today will be time you gain in the future, and that’s something worth working hard for!

P.S. Rest assured that my teeth are the only human bones I have in my personal holdings. Or bones of any species, for that matter.

Do you have original Packard documents, photographs, publications, or memorabilia that might be of value to the Packard Proving Grounds Library and Archives? Contact the site for information about our collection focus and donation policies.


  • Emily Benoit

    Lover of research and writing, libraries and archives. Graduate of Oakland University's MA of English Literature program; and Wayne State University's MLIS program with an additional certification in archival administration.

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