As one of the UK’s most iconic contemporary buildings (currently being honoured by appearing on a first class stamp no less!) the Library of Birmingham contains some amazing, precious and unique things. Some highlights include Shakespeare’s first folio, Audubon’s Birds of America, a small drawing of a kettle by James Watt, photos of models from Pre-Raphaelite paintings to our oldest surviving document from 1150’s , but have you ever wondered how these items are cared for? What the ‘Gold’ part of the building is? Conservator Lucy Angus explains.
As part of the Archives & Collections team my job is to care for the archival and special collections. A major part of my role is collections care. Collections care, which is sometimes called preventive conservation, involves any actions taken to prevent or delay the deterioration of cultural heritage. This could be anything from advising people on the handling of original documents, to making sure environmental conditions such as temperature and Relative Humidity (RH) are stable and are at the correct levels, to how something is packaged!
The collections held here are varied and vast containing every material type and size you can imagine! This ranges from miniature books to enormous maps, parchment and seals, photographs, paper and even a sitar! Therefore storage is a very important and vital part of keeping the collections safe for the future.
Watt’s Kettle. One of the priceless treasures held in the archives
Example of the types of boxes we use to store archives at AH&P
Many of you have read about our preparations for the move and the careful packaging of thousands and thousands of items. Whilst contributing to the wrapping of the book stock in Archives and Heritage, I often wondered about where these items had come from – how had they made their way into our collections and where had they been kept before. Inevitably some items were more in need of attention than others but it occurred to us that there are untold numbers of collections in private, community and business hands that, if looked after properly now, would hopefully find their way to an archives such as ours, in a good condition sometime in the future.
Archives are not just paper documents; they can be made of parchment, be photographs, maps, plans, bound in volumes, loose in a drawer. If you think something is important enough to be kept long-term, it’s best to start looking after it now. Although each circumstance is different and each location where archives are stored will have its own unique conditions, we thought it might help to give a few basic pointers – things to be aware of when storing personal papers. We will be looking at photographs specifically in a few weeks’ time, but there are some simple steps that can be taken to help protect archives, and some things that should be avoided!
Choosing a storage location
- Avoid storing items in attics, garages and basements as they can be damp and are prone to leaks, flooding, mould, pests and extremes of temperature. If these areas must be used ensure all shelving is at least 15cm from the floor and keep items away from exterior walls.
- Avoid storage near to vehicles, aerosols, paints and varnishes, windows and exterior doors, as chemical fumes and everyday air pollution can accelerate deterioration.
- Keep items away from heat sources, electrical equipment and magnetic fields as these accelerate damage and aging.
- A clean, dark environment with a fairly constant temperature and humidity, such as an above ground cupboard in the centre of your home, is ideal for storage.
- Block out direct sunlight and switch off any lights when not in use.
- Keep all pets, food and drink away from items.
Handling and storage basics
- Avoid directly handling fragile items where possible. Ensure hands are clean and only hold photographs, negatives, artworks and films at the edges (ideally cotton, vinyl or nitrile gloves should be worn).
- Try to keep items on a flat surface for support. Place a rolled up towel on either side of a book’s spine to help support the structure when open.
- Do not force curled/folded items or stiff books to open as this will cause damage.
- Avoid using elastic bands as they may perish or stick to items causing staining.
- Avoid the use of metal pins and paperclips as they can rust and tear items.
- Never use adhesive tapes to repair items as they can cause staining and adhere to other things.
- Avoid storing photographs in plastic ‘magnetic’ albums with adhesive surfaces. Photo corners or ‘pocket’ albums are preferred. Also avoid contact between facing images.
- Store different types of materials (photographs, negatives, paper documents, objects, textiles etc) separately, keeping a note of items which belong together.
- Keep newspaper clippings away from all other items you wish to preserve and use acid-free tissue paper rather than newspaper to wrap items for protection. (Newspaper is very poor quality, acidic paper which can harm other items).
- Avoid the use of plastic and PVC wallets, plastic/bin bags or cling film for storage as these yellow and become sticky with age, often lifting the ink from documents. Also avoid wooden storage boxes and drawers as they can contain chemicals which can transfer.
- Try to store items flat and unfolded where possible.
- Avoid marking items with ink (which fades and can bleed if damp). If necessary, write lightly with a HB pencil on the reverse. Continue reading