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Organizing and Preserving Collections

The First Steps: Part 1

I was inspired to research this topic for selfish reasons. The older I get, the further I find myself sinking under the rising tide of personal and family “stuff”. Moves, rummaging and time constraints have disrupted my rudimentary organizational systems, leaving my collections in semi-chaotic states. Not that there’s anything wrong with chaos… but it is very hard to preserve things when you don’t know exactly what you have or exactly where it is. "Preservation through Organization" is my new motto.

Collection Policy - what is your mandate? Every manageable collection has a raison d’être. Without one you are stuck with saving every pretty shiny thing that crosses your path. Clarifying the theme(s) of your collection(s) allows you to focus on what is important, unique and interesting to you, and to jettison the rest. In my own case, I came up with the following subject mandates: Family History and Personal Interests. The subjects are broad, but they give me a place to start, I can always fine-tune things later. Others will have different or additional mandates; there are no right or wrong answers.

Organize the “many” into smaller grouped collections When museums, art galleries and archives receive or purchase groups of related items, they usually try to retain the original organization of these items in what is called “natural collections.” As you look around your own possessions, you will likely find that they are already grouped into natural collections, or can be easily organized into one. If items have been grouped by a previous owner, the original order is kept whenever possible as it may give important context to the collection. In some cases a collection will consist of a single item.

Registration Once you have identified or created a collection, it is assigned a number and recorded in a ledger or software program. Following established registration methodology, the number starts with the year in which the collection is registered, e.g., 2010. The next number is the collection number, starting with 1. Individual items in the collection are then numbered, e.g., 1, 2, 3, etc., and in the case of items which have more than one part, each part is identified by a letter, e.g., a, b, c, etc. Suppose, for example, the first collection I registered this year was my grandmother’s china and I started with her teapot. The body would be numbered 2010.1.1.a, and the lid 2010.1.1.b. A platter in the same collection would be 2010.1.2. In each subsequent year, the numbering process starts anew: the first item in the first collection registered in 2011 will be assigned the number 2011.1.1.

Cataloguing The registration number allows for all the needful information associated with each item to be gathered in one place and systematically filed. Photograph, creator, materials, provenance, dimensions, condition, location - this is just some of the information that you may want to include in your catalogue sheet or software program. Collection Management is an ongoing process and is never really finished. It does, however, give you a structure to help you keep on top of things, and makes sure that your valuables are identified and given context for the next caretaker.


by Rebecca Pavitt -

Part 2: Paper-Based Material

Oh, those piles and piles of paper! There are important papers that prove our existence, sentimental papers that tell our story, business papers, art catalogues; the list goes on and on. This is the year I will get organized and start my own personal archives!

But first, some basic whys and wherefores. What actually constitutes an archive? Broadly speaking, archives house materials that are important to the history of the person or institution creating it; materials that are not in current use.

Of that material, most of us will find that 95% or so of what we have saved can be winnowed and discarded. Do we need every Christmas card, receipt, letter of inquiry or playbill we have ever collected? In thinking about these questions we decide what is important, what is better (or already) housed in the archives of another person or institution, and what is…dreck.

It is best to focus on one collection type at a time. This helps divide the job into manageable tasks and keep costs under control. I, for example, recently tackled my bottom file drawer which contained important legal documents interspersed with multi-generational school reports and expired passports. They had been organized once before, but through years of use and moves were shuffled and confused. Having fretted and fussed about this for a couple of years I finally settled down and made decisions about the storage format that would suit me best, and sorted the contents into piles according to category and chronology.

Many items hit the recycling bin or shredder. Space-worthy papers were grouped into acid-free file folders and, in some cases archival-quality page protectors. The file folders were then labelled according to content, and the boxes given general category labels.

This drawer, however, is but the tip of the iceberg. My garage holds Bankers Boxes and Rubbermaid bins full of letters, old school work, business records, children’s drawings and lord knows what else. In the coming year, tax filings and receipts older than six years will be headed for the shredder and the rest ruthlessly winnowed. If they don’t tell an important part of my story, out they go.

Odd-sized documents such as land records, surveys and blueprints are presently stacked in the front hall closet. Because of their odd sizes they will need custom housing in larger boxes and storage tubes. The personal archivist benefits from the well-established public archive industry; there are acid-free solutions for almost any size and shape.

Along with storage comes cataloguing. The items in my collections will not be individually recorded, but general descriptions based on file folder and box labels will be entered on a master list with the box location noted. As with any large task, creating an archives requires a system and time schedule for tasks, but it all does not need to be done at once. Those papers have been living in chaos for years. A couple more won’t make any difference!


by Rebecca Pavitt -

Part 3: Photo-Based Material

As with other archival materials, collections of photographs and negatives need to be organized to give context to each image and for easy item retrieval. If your photographs are already grouped according to subject matter, you can get right down to cataloguing them with registration numbers and housing them in appropriate enclosures. In this modern world of point and shoot, just because the shutter was pressed doesn't mean that the image is worth keeping, so it may be time to winnow your collections.

When dealing with a box of unorganized photographs, you must decide upon logical systems of order to define and categorize your collections. Family archives will benefit from chronological, geographical and event headings whereas items of an artistic or documentary nature would require different categories. The physical organization and storage of collections present unique challenges as photography encompasses a variety of materials. Photographic types run the gambit from daguerreotype to ink-jet prints, not to mention the range of negative substrates (glass, cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate and polyester), which can have different optimum storage requirements and mechanisms of deterioration. Moreover, sizes and formats of early photographs can vary, and will not meet modern standard sizing.

Archival suppliers sell storage systems designed for specific sizes and material formats for glass negatives, cased photographs, carte de visite photos, slides, and the like. Depending on the types and sizes you have, standard storage systems may need to be modified to suit your collections. What follows are a few suggestions for the private collector to consider:

Size: If you only have a few non-standard sized photographs (such as cased photos, tin-types, or mounted photos) you might consider a custom mount which would allow for proper sequencing. An alternative would be to mark the place the photograph would have occupied in the collection with a note giving its storage location.

Materials: All photographs and negatives are sensitive to chemical deterioration. Contact materials should be PAT (Photo Activity Test) approved; archival suppliers carry storage materials with the proper specifications. Protein emulsions are thought to be sensitive to the high alkalinity of conventional buffered paper-based archival storage materials, so neutral pH cellulose, or archival quality plastic enclosures are good choices. For extra protection, Microchamber Silversafe boxes, papers and folders are double-sided: neutral pH for the contact side, and alkaline pH with volatile chemical absorbing zeolites for the non-contact side.

Temperature and Relative Humidity: To avoid deterioration temperatures should not exceed 21ºC, but lower is better. For mixed photographic collections, a relative humidity of 35-40% is best, and should never rise above 60%. Owners of valuable photographs should consider environmentally controlled cold or frozen storage.

Special Considerations: Cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate negatives are often unstable. Cellulose nitrate may shrink, causing the gelatin emulsion to accordion wrinkle; cellulose acetate becomes brittle as it deteriorates, giving off a vinegar-like smell from released acetic acid. If your negatives show signs of these conditions, it would be best to have them copied, or put in cold storage to slow the process.

Photographic chemistry and conservation is extraordinarily complicated; for more information visit Wilhelm Imaging Research at:


by Rebecca Pavitt -

Part 4: Digital-Based Material

Digital preservation is in its infancy but, long story short, don’t count on sharing your digital Kodak moments with your great grandchildren. Unlike physical objects that can be held, touched and cherished, digital objects need machines to create, store, retrieve and view them. If the machines go, so goes the information. I had a first-hand reminder of just how ephemeral most of my post-2000 records were. My new Stargate hard drive died due to “inherent vice” and I was left with: nothing.

To the uninitiated, this might seem like a blessing from heaven. All of those nagging, undone, file management/computer housekeeping issues one has been meaning to deal with are, well, dealt with. Tabula rasa Nirvana! Microsoft recently did an extensive survey, asking people how important it was for them to keep their digital information. The result was an unexpected and resounding - Not at All! The overwhelming majority of participants said they would welcome losing the contents of their hard drive - they compared it to a cleansing house fire that would free them from their burdensome files.

Attractive as that scenario may sound, I can personally vouch for the fact that the brutal reality is otherwise. Accounts receivable, baby’s first smile, e-mails from dearly departed, important income tax information, and Gramma’s audio family history - all gone in the poof of a microchip.

Fortunately, most of my information was retrievable (at a cost) and I now have a back-up hard drive. Every evening a clever little software program copies my new files to the back-up drive. If I had really learnt my lesson, I would have had a second software program copy my files to an off-site location (cloud storage). Ever one for locking the barn door after the horse has escaped, I am sure I will start doing this after the big one hits.

But back-up is just part of the story. Every software upgrade, every new operating system, every hardware innovation, will render your files just that more obsolete. Unless you view and refresh all of your files in the new systems, the visual look or audio sound may change, and information packets are at risk of loss. Even if you migrate and transfer religiously (and who does?) there is nothing to prevent proprietary software systems from closing shop, or from simply ceasing to support older file versions. After all, if we don’t care about saving our information, (and research shows we don’t) why should a for-profit company spend good money helping us do so?

Well-heeled corporations and publicly funded institutions with IT departments and/or digital conservators are in a slightly better position than the private file manager. As “early” as 1996 in the U.S., the Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research Libraries Group created a Task Force on Digital Archiving, which led to the publication of two reports: Building a National Strategy for Digital Preservation issues in Digital Media Archiving (2002) and Preserving our Digital Heritage: The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (2010).

Recommendations coming out of these studies include:

sustainable, open source, digital file formats with universal/standardized descriptive metadata (to allow searchability and retrieval)
identifying and organizing the items that are important to preserve (and winnowing or allowing the “natural death” of the remainder)
multiple backups of important items stored in multiple locations
regular migration/transfer to new formats and media
For more information on digital preservation visit or contact one of Canada’s Pioneer Digital Conservators, Sue Bigelow at the City of Vancouver Archives.


by Rebecca Pavitt -

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