Tuesday, 22 April 2014

An Introduction to Conservation

We recently spent two days with a conservator to receive some specialist advice on how to best preserve our holdings. A number of Archives do not have an in-house conservator therefore many, such as ourselves, pay an annual fee to receive advice and visits from external conservators to recommend how to best care for particularly fragile archives.

It is really interesting how the main aims and goals of long term preservation are shared by Archivists and Conservators yet those who work in archives are rarely given formal training in conservation techniques, which is what makes these visits so important.

Day 1

In our Archives we hold reel tapes, contained in metal tins, which belonged to photographer Ian Stern, currently suffering from deterioration, which  crucially need to be repackaged, in order to slow this process of deterioration down prior to digitisation.
The conservator, Claire, believed it is important to suggest methods that are achievable with the resources and budgets available to individual institutions. Therefore she taught us a simple way of making temporary envelopes out of the Microchamber paper, that we already had, which removes by-products of pollutants in the atmosphere. The envelopes were constructed using a clever folding technique which meant they did not need harmful adhesives to hold them together.
I was struck by how our Archivist, Sarah and Claire together decided that it was best to keep the reel tapes with their original metal tins, when repackaging, as although they are not archival containers, they believed the many finger prints on them were just as much a part of the record as the tapes themselves.

Day 2

On day two, we travelled up to the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus to join our colleagues here for further training with Claire in book cleaning. These skills will be particularly useful with our increased responsibility for Special Collections.

With a cardboard box on its side to catch the dust, we used a very soft brush to clean the books, gently sweeping the dust from the spine outwards. For the really dirty books, we learnt that the best way to clean them was by gently dabbing away the dirt using a smoke sponge. 

It was fascinating to then have the chance to look at some individual cases of archives that needed particular care in the Exeter holdings such as this book, below, which appears to have suffered from pest damage.

I feel that both these days have taught me skills which will continue to be useful to me throughout a future career in archives. It is as much a way of thinking, as specific practical skills, which I feel I have gained, through Claire’s training, in order to achieve the best possible care with the resources that are available to you. I have also learnt that often minimal preservation treatment can be better care for an archive.

Furthermore it has opened up many questions for me to think about, such as, if the container or box which the archive is held in is not archival grade, then should it be removed or is it part of the record? Can it instead be argued that the container gives an idea of the context of the record and could possibly offer us further information? This experience has opened my eyes to many questions to consider during my study of the MA in Archive and Records Management  qualification next year.