Friday, 1 July 2016

Problems with Preservation (or 'Why I hate sticky tape')

Creation of the final catalogue for the papers of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is now well underway, and something that’s taking up quite a lot of time is basic preservation work. This might be something of a surprise when working with a relatively modern collection, with the bulk of the content dating from the mid-late twentieth century.

A typical ACPO subject file

The majority of the collection consists of subject files. These contain correspondence, extracts from minutes, reports and other documents relating to subjects as diverse as uniforms, chief officers’ salaries to dangerous drugs and explosives. Although almost the entirety of the records are in hard copy which is generally understood to be more stable than digital records, each file is plagued with potential conservation issues.

Much of the paper is brittle and acidic, minute extracts are attached using sticky tape, staples or pins. The tape has turned yellow and crunchy and although it’s lost its stickiness, there’s plenty of discoloured residue on all of the documents it’s come into contact with. Many of the staples and pins are rusty and disintegrating, with oxidised metal damaging the paper and crumbling into dust in the boxes. Some files are crammed so full that the file folders themselves have split and the treasury tags holding them together have eaten through the flimsy copy-paper.

File with sellotape, brittle paper and metal fixings

In an ideal world every folder would be taken apart with each page being given conservation treatment specific to its condition. This might include the careful removal of staples or tape, or placement in a protective sleeve to prevent cross contamination or further discolouration. Some content such as Photostat copies may require the creation of preservation or access copies in a more stable format. Flimsier items may need protecting in melinex sleeves to prevent further damage. Each page would then be numbered in sequence and placed, in order, in a custom made folder (along with the original folder binding which contains its own valuable information) ready for storage.
However, given the scale of this collection (nearly 600 boxes, many containing multiple files, some of which consist of hundreds of pieces of paper), this represents a huge amount of work and expense for conservation materials. As with many collections from this period it simply is not feasible to undertake conservation activities to this level.

Rusty metal removed from files

All of this said, we’re doing everything we can to ensure the collection’s survival and continued availability. It is stored in archival quality folders and boxes in our carefully climate controlled stack room. As many non-brass staples and paperclips will be removed as time allows, and items previously affixed with (no longer sticky) sticky tape will be attached with brass paperclips to ensure they are not orphaned from their original location. Where files have become so unstable that damage through handling is unavoidable, digital surrogates will be made to ensure access can still be provided.

Talk is often made of the ‘digital black hole’ our society is facing, in relation to our ignorance or inaction regarding suitable ways to store, preserve and provide access to born digital records in the long term. People often describe this problem as the result of the ‘paradigm shift’ between physical and digital record-keeping technologies. However, this transition could be considered just an extension of the increasingly ephemeral nature of paper records in the twentieth century resulting from the drive to save money. Is this development less of a complete turn and more a gradual slide from organically derived more stable recording media such as parchment or high quality papers, which we know have tremendous longevity in the right conditions, towards cheaper, increasingly artificial information storage methods which require greater human intervention to ensure long term preservation.

Rather than focusing on a purely ‘digital black hole’ then, should we instead be considering what the impact of a ‘late twentieth century gap’ would be to our cultural history? Should we stop looking at the preservation of digital records in isolation from their analogue counterparts? Despite many of the tools used in digital preservation such as OAIS being designed to accommodate records regardless of format, a distinction between these two types of record format is still very much felt in the world of archives.

As for the ACPO papers, although there is a possibility that the records may incur further damage as a result of being handled, archival preservation has to always find a balance between protecting the documents and enabling access. The work I am doing to preserve the records is designed to minimize this possibility, but these dangers were built in to the records at the point of creation. Short of completely destroying the originals (a step some archives are beginning to take), this is unavoidable.

Alex Healey, Project Archivist (ACPO)