Interview with an Archivist

Sustaining Places chatted with Leigh Rifenburg, Chief Curator of the Delaware Historical Society, to discuss some helpful tips when it comes to archival work in museums. We are deeply appreciative of her time and thoughtful reflections. Check out Rifenburg’s insightful comments below. 

Q: What are the first steps a volunteer or employee can take when they find stacks and boxes full of undocumented archival material?

A: First of all, document what you’ve found. Take some photographs of the materials in situ and open containers. Using nitrile gloves and a mask, check for mold, nitrate film, or suspicious particulate on collections that should be segregated immediately.

Write up a brief report on your findings, including the size of the backlog, the location of the materials, and their general condition. Did you find broken glass, cracked book spines, badly deteriorated newspapers, water damage? Are the collections sitting directly on the floor? Note the formats found (photographs, manuscripts, rare books, etc.) and if your initial inspection raised concerns about health or human safety or immediate preservation/conservation needs. Present this information to your supervisor immediately and work with appropriate staff to form a plan to establish physical, intellectual, and legal control of these materials (what is it, where is it, does the museum/archive/library have legal proof of ownership?). This will likely be the time to think about a larger, more granular survey, using a spreadsheet or database to track item format, condition, location, donor information, etc.

Q: What are your initial safety concerns? 

A: My first concern is always for human health and safety. My second concern is for the safety of the collections themselves, and I believe that taking the time to educate researchers in proper handling is essential.

  • Documents and photographs should be handled gently from the edges using clean, dry hands (no lotion, please!). Paper has four main enemies, including moisture, heat, light, and oils on the hands. Gloves are unnecessary for these materials because they affect manual dexterity and your ability to feel what you are doing, which could cause unintended damage to the document.
  • Glass plate negatives, film, cased images, or particularly dusty/dirty items should be handled with nitrile gloves to avoid leaving permanent fingerprints.
  • Book supports or cradles should be provided to anyone using a rare book or bound manuscript to avoid damage to spines or binding.
  • I am a tad maniacal about pens in the reading room and keep a large supply of pencils on hand for researchers. Pen marks on priceless documents cannot be erased.
  • Without hovering, keep a discreet eye on researchers at all times-you’d be amazed at how often I catch someone leaning their elbows on an oversize document! Again, this is a matter of gentle education, in the name of collections safety. I try to get people to understand that we are all stewards of these collections, and it is incumbent on everyone who comes in contact with them to exercise the utmost care in their handling.

Q: Digitization is such a popular buzzword in the field today. How do you think museums should use digitization methods with their archival collections?

A: Digital surrogates can have tremendous value within a collection. High-use collections should be digitized when possible to prevent excessive handling that might speed deterioration or cause damage.

It is important not to rely on digitization as a sole means of preservation. Digitization is expensive, time consuming, and digital formats are fickle and can change at lightning speed. There are many schools of thought about this, but I believe that digitization is best used as a companion means of preservation, but should not necessarily be prioritized over preservation of the original. Bear in mind that it is neither practical nor necessary to digitize everything, and some items should not be digitized at all based on their condition.

For digitizing on a budget, there are a number of very good scanners on the market that produce archival quality results (at least 300 dpi TIFF) for under $1000.00. If this is out of reach, it may be possible to form a cooperative arrangement with a nearby institution and use their scanning equipment, or purchase some equipment together.

Q: Speaking of working with technology on a budget, how can a small museum begin a computer record keeping system for their archive?

A: So much of this depends on budget, but, depending on the overall size of the collection, it could be possible to get started with a simple Excel spreadsheet or Access database. A number of open source content management options are available now (particularly Archives Space) which were developed around the needs of the archival community, so these are worth exploring as well. At the end of the day, the need for physical, intellectual, and legal control of collections is paramount. Starting small with a very simple record keeping system is perfectly acceptable. Make sure that is is backed up frequently!

Q: Now that we’ve got our records in order, do you have any advice for those drafting an archival policy document? 

A: There is rarely a need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to drafting a collection policy. It is wise to look at sample policies from other institutions to use as a guide, and adapt them to suit your own institutional needs. The American Association for State and Local History and many state and regional museum associations provide sample documents and advice as well. The Delaware Museum Association provided attendees with an excellent packet of sample documents and policies at its annual meeting last year. Make sure that appropriate staff, board members, or collections committee members are included in the process, and take a hard look at your current collections management situation before you begin. Making a list of current strengths, weaknesses, and needs will help to inform your policy.

Q: Do you have any tips on creating finding aids? 

A: Behind every good finding aid is a good inventory. Invest the time in a box-level inventory, at minimum. It is not always possible (or necessary) to do an item or folder-level inventory, but box-level will provide enough to create a solid, well-organized hierarchy that is useful to researchers. As you develop your organizational scheme, always keep the end user in mind. A finding aid is only useful if it makes sense to a researcher, so try to establish clear series and avoid overly complicated hierarchies. Keep a list of subject headings for cross-referencing and refer to DACS: A Content Standard (available online) to help standardize language and organization. Crowd-sourcing could be an option for small museums, but it has to been done in a highly controlled environment, or you run the risk of creating chaos in a document that is intended to facilitate order and discoverability.

Q: When should a fledgling archive worry about weeding?

A: Fledgling archives will never have cause to worry about weeding if they make it a regular part of their collections management practices from the start. Scheduling substantive weeding every 3-5 years is a healthy part of the collections management cycle. Periodic “spot weeding” by collection type can be useful as well. One way to prevent the need for excessive weeding is to be strategic about what is accessioned in the first place. By making smart selection and appraisal decisions at the point of donation (rather than after the fact), staff can prevent a backlog of unnecessary material that will only have to be weeded later, a process that becomes infinitely more complicated if these items have been formally accessioned.

Q: How can museums without a designated storage space think about safely housing their collection?

A: There is no easy answer to this one, but almost every institution can create some storage space if they are willing to be creative. It may not be perfect, but as long as the area is relatively clean, the environment is stable and the collections are off the floor in acid-free housing, it is a start. This could be as simple as a large closet with a few shelves, an empty hallway, or an underused room. If it is within budget, a museum could also consider offsite storage. Grant funding is always an option as well. Safely housing collections must be a clear priority for a museum, and any collecting institution can take some steps to that end, even if their solutions are less than ideal in the short term. Something is always better than nothing when it comes to collections care and management.

Q: After considering an archive has a policy, finding aids, and safe storage, when should a beginning archive be made publicly available? 

A: There are exceptions to every rule, but I tend to err on the side of making a collection discoverable once it is safely housed and deemed stable enough for handling. If an institution is dealing with a large backlog of material, it may take months or even years before that material is fully cataloged. We do our users a disservice by holding back collections that are uncataloged but otherwise processed and ready for research.