Preservation, British Library, workshop slide, University of Brighton Design Archives, Sirpa Kutilainen

Preservation can be defined as a preventive measure that safeguards a collection from damage. This can be considered from two perspectives; looking after original materials and caring for digitised areas of collections. I would imagine that in the future, more digital-born collections will also be surfacing requiring systems of back-up and new types of collection care guidelines. A digital preservation policy within collections that increasingly digitises their holdings is an important factor in the safe-keep of the materials. On this front, APERSEN (Alliance for Permanent Access to the Records of Science in Europe Network) have created a survey entitled ‘What is the state of digital preservation in your organisation?’ which some of you might find a useful exercise to partake in.

Stepping away from the digital world, taking measures to preserve a collection at its root ultimately extends its lifespan. Preservation is a more cost-effective way to manage collections rather than trying to ‘fix’ things when damage has already taken place. Risk factors for collections include things such as poor handling or storage, theft of vandalism, fire and flood, pests, pollution, light and incorrect temperature and relative humidity. The majority of these issues are listed in connection with  preservation issues surrounding original materials, but some factors can also be extended to digitised collections and their care.

On Wednesday 26 September I attended a workshop entitled ‘Preservation Assessment Survey for Libraries and Archives’, designed for library an archive staff, at the British Library Preservation Advisory Centre. The course went through the methodology used in compiling a preservation assessment survey as well as demonstrating the benefits of carrying one out. The day included practical exercises in the depths of the British Library, which was a great experience in itself! The workshop was run by Julia Foster and was well attended by people from museums and archives around the south.

The preservation assessment survey’s purpose is to “assess preservation practice e.g. storage, environment, emergency response, handling, security and surrogacy, the usability of the collection by assessing the proportion of material at high and low risk through use, the condition of sample items including type and extent of damage and the significance of the collection to the institution and more widely.” Doing a survey is also a great way to spend a few weeks with your collection. The survey is normally based on 400 items within an archive or library picked by calculating the number of occupied shelves. Surveying this particular amount of samples gives a 95% reliable conclusion.

When the 400 items from you collection have been chosen, a 15-part questionnaire is filled about the preservation of the item at hand. In an archive environment, the samples need to be surveyed as they would be presented to researchers – this can vary from an entire box, a file, a folder or an individual item from within a box. The importance of efficient and accurate cataloguing helps with this process. The final survey graphs are calculated from the results of these questionnaires.

The survey is by no means an item by item process but at the end gives you a more generic condition report helping with quantifying what you know about your collection and bringing up a clearer profile for collection care. In archives, the biggest risk lies in handling. Raising the profile of preservation and collection care by engaging with people outside of your own team was also a very valid point made throughout the day. In addition to this, the process also encourages you to keep in mind that an object in good condition now might not be in 20 years’ time and reminds you to offset activities by expecting events that increase the use of a collection. Routine cleaning and the importance in collecting data about temperature and humidity are obviously encouraged and a written disaster plan should also exist. A specific version of the survey exists for photographic collections and artefacts. Currently the software used to compile the data is not compatible with Macs – perhaps an iPad app should be developed for this!

For more information, visit the British Library Preservation Advisory Centre.

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