How to Proceed: Housing and Preserving

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Back to How to Proceed Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Preparing to Process
3. Arranging
4. Describing
5. Housing and Preserving
6. Finishing the Job


Preservation and You

If you had wandered through the stacks a very few years ago, you would have been amazed to see that most of our unique and valuable materials reposed in cruddy-looking corrugated boxes. That is no longer the case but there is still work to be done. Preservation of the materials in our care is a responsibility of the highest order. It is an integral part of archives and manuscripts work at EVERY level for EVERY staff member.

Consciousness Raising

The key ingredient in our preservation efforts is YOU. You need to develop (and influence others to develop) a preservation consciousness: a deep belief in the need for preserving our collections, coupled with work habits that are conducive to fulfilling this mission. Each time an item is handled--by us during processing, by reference staff when retrieving or refiling, by users conducting research, by preparers when mounting exhibits--the potential for damage, misplacement, or loss exists. Cultivating a preservation mentality gets newly processed collections off to a safe start and minimizes future risk to the irreplaceable materials that we hold.


Preservation consists of those actions that retard or prevent damage to materials. Among these are controlling the macroenvironment (temperature, relative humidity, light, etc.), providing a safe microenvironment (archivally sound housing in terms of boxes, folders, etc.), imposing preservation-wise rules for the handling of materials by staff and researchers, devising and implementing a disaster plan, and other measures. Conservation, on the other hand, is chiefly defined as bench work and is described in terms of treatments performed on individual items. These include cleaning, deacidification, tear repair, encapsulation, and other procedures. Whether or not you ever become involved in conservation, preservation is undeniably an important part of your work as a processor.

Most conservators (conservationists protect wetlands and whales, not library materials) agree that the macroenvironment is the most significant element in any preservation effort. We know, because of a monitoring program that for years took readings throughout the building, that the renovated parts of Wilson Library (the original 1929 building and the 1952 addition) are pretty satisfactory in terms of temperature and relative humidity and that the 1977 addition to the library still suffers from poor environmental controls. The macroenvironment has further been enhanced by the application of ultraviolet-filtering film to all of our windows and light sources.

So the macroenvironment is pretty much under control for part of our holdings and pretty much out of our control for the other part. As the 1977 addition requires work far beyond our ability to fund, we need to focus on what we can, in fact, control: the microenvironment--the immediate environment enclosed by the boxes and folders in which our materials are housed. This is not the place to go into the complex relations between various elements of paper, glue, etc., many of which are still only partially understood by chemists and other science types. Those wishing further information can start with Ritzenthaler's Archives & Manuscripts: Conservation and work their way through the many other publications on this topic. Suffice it to say that boxes and folders made of acidic materials tend to transfer their acids to the materials they hold, thereby accelerating the destruction of the materials they are supposed to protect.

Your preservation activities chiefly have to do with insuring that materials are appropriately housed in alkaline (non-acidic) microenvironments. You are also charged with producing clear and accurate box, folder, and item labels that promote quick and easy retrieval and refiling and prevent unnecessary handling of items. You may also be responsible for certain other procedures--unfolding and unrolling through humidification and flattening, preservation photocopying, inner foldering--and for identifying items that are candidates for professional conservation work.

Be aware, however, that the volume of materials involved makes it possible to perform intensive conservation treatments on only a small number of items. Especially with large 20th- and 21st-century collections, it is entirely possible that your preservation activities will be the only such efforts made in behalf of your collection for many, many years (if not forever). When you unfold, unroll, box, folder, and label, be aware that your preservation consciousness is a big factor in the survival potential of the materials you handle.


All staff share in preservation responsibilities. The conservators monitor the macroenvironment, but staff should always be on the lookout for water leaks, dramatic changes in temperature, and other signs that may signal macroenvironmental trouble. The conservator also is responsible for evaluating conservation requests from staff and for performing conservation treatments. Research and Instructional Services staff observe careful handling procedures and instruct researchers on how to do the same. Both R&IS staff and researchers occasionally find individual items that require conservation treatments; they are also in the best position to identify collections that need rehousing. Curators alert Tech Services to collection conditions and items needing special attention during processing, including moldy materials, born digital materials, and audiovisual materials that may need reformatting by the Sound and Image Librarian, who is charged with supervision of the Rivers Studio (sound) and the Jones Studio (video). Tech Services has responsibility for processing all materials in a preservation-conscious way, for suggesting conservation treatments of individual items discovered in the course of processing, and for any rehousing initiatives that arise.

Outside Assistance

The difference between preservation and conservation has already been discussed. As a processor, you are chiefly involved in preservation. While you may occasionally do some simple work on individual items (inner foldering, humidification, flattening, preservation photocopying), for the most part, your duties in this area will involve selecting items as candidates for conservation treatments by others. Even though your role in conservation is pretty peripheral, you should be aware that conservation is serious business, and those who are good at it have learned to proceed with caution. Remember that almost all of our items are unique and many of them are quite valuable.

As you handle materials in different collections, you will most likely encounter some items that have been "repaired" by loving but unskilled hands. Typically, these "repairs" cause a great deal more harm than good. Those brown stains indicate that the pieces of pressure-sensitive tape applied thirty years ago by some well-intentioned descendent are destroying the ancestral letters they were meant to preserve.

Conservation is not a do-it-yourself job. The Library's conservators, in consultation with Tech Services staff, typically decide what treatments specific items require. The possibilities include tear repair using heat-set or Japanese tissue, encapsulation in archivally approved plastic, cleaning, ironing, deacidification, adhesive removal, and other treatments, all of which require the services of a highly trained conservation professional. This Library is fortunate to have top-rate conservation personnel and facilities. The Department takes full advantage of these capabilities to the extent of paying the salary of a student who is trained by the conservators to work exclusively on our materials.

Removing Items for Conservation Treatment

Deciding which items to remove for treatment in the Library's Conservation Lab is not always easy. Most conservation treatments are extremely labor intensive, and no one has the human resources that it would take to perform all of the treatments that might be carried out. We must, therefore, exercise considerable restraint when selecting items to be sent to the Lab, often passing over items that might, in the best of all possible worlds, be considered worthy candidates.

You should discuss conservation candidates with your supervising archivist. Things that we bear in mind when contemplating conservation treatments are:

  • the preservation-intensity level that you and your supervising archivist discussed during processing planning;
  • the research value of the collection or series and of the particular items selected (even in a high-value collection, it is unlikely that all items merit conservation treatment);
  • the potential number of items that might be selected (are there 10 or 10,000 items that are candidates for conservation work?);
  • the type of treatment(s) required (there is a great difference between encapsulating a few items and cleaning, tear repairing, and boxing an extremely fragile account book);
  • the future preservation work that has been planned for the collection (if the collection is a strong candidate for digitization, repairs to individual items will generally be kept to a minimum).

When you do pull items for treatment in the Conservation Lab, you must be careful to leave a clear trail so that the pulled material can be returned to its rightful place.

See your supervising archivist for instructions on how to remove conservation candidates and sending them to the lab .

What You Can Do

Like everything else in processing work, no hard and fast rules can be applied to determine the preservation requirements of the collections you process. Once again, it is important to understand the relationship among the chief processing procedures. A lighter treatment, in terms of arranging, describing, and cataloging usually implies minimal attention to preservation. Our baseline requirements for preservation are that, with some exceptions, all materials are housed in folders (whether new or the ones the materials came in), the folders are numbered, and audio/visual media is separated from the paper-based items. When particularly intensive processing is to be carried out, equally intensive preservation and conservation measures may be indicated.

As the depth and intensity of arranging, describing, and cataloging largely depend on the collection's perceived research value, so the extent of preservation work actually performed on a collection is determined, to a large degree, by how valuable the material is for our researchers. Value here is chiefly in terms of research value, although many of our items also have great artifactual value (autographs, etc.). It would make little sense to apply extensive, time-consuming preservation or conservation measures to materials that are of minimal research value. On the other hand, it makes a great deal of sense to devote considerable effort to a collection containing materials of great value, whose loss would have serious consequences for research in one or more subject areas.

Another important consideration in determining preservation work is the degree of use we expect the materials to experience in the reading room. If we don't expect a collection to be heavily used, we may not worry too much about the potential wear and tear. A good example involves letters in envelopes. We typically remove letters from envelopes during processing to keep them from being damaged when they are taken out of and placed back into envelopes. Invitations printed on sturdy paper and not anticipated to be used heavily, however, might not be de-enveloped. Of course, if we have guessed wrong about use, we might revisit this decision. As with processing decisions, we rely on our R&IS colleagues to let us know when more preservation work might be needed.

Besides research value and expected use, the extent of preservation activities is also influenced by the volume of materials in a collection. For large collections, the sheer bulk of materials involved requires that we take a hard look at the preservation/conservation work we undertake. Archival preservation work sometimes looks at artifactually valuable items, but most commonly proceeds on the basis of groups of materials. This is, of course, consistent with other procedures--arranging, describing, and cataloging--that treat materials in the aggregate. You will find that housing collections in archivally sound boxes and folders and carefully labeling them to make retrieval easier (and thereby discouraging unnecessary handling) are the most frequently prescribed measures for an intensive processing project.

Sometimes we can go further than that. Particularly with smaller collections containing potentially significant materials, you are likely to carry out more procedures like unfolding and unrolling, humidifying and flattening, inner foldering, removing fasteners, preservation photocopying, and, as discussed above, sending items for conservation treatment.

The following preservation activities may not be indicated for every collection that you process and often are predicated on item-level processing. Depending on factors like research value and size, you and your supervising archivist may decide that all, some, or none of these measures are appropriate. Your collection may not warrant these more intensive measures for reasons of physical condition, size, or research value. Whatever the reason, do not assume that your collection is doomed to a short life. In truth, we do not really know how much extra time we are buying for original materials above and beyond their preordained lifespan when we take these preservation steps. Ease your mind with the knowledge that you are serving the researchers of today and tomorrow, if not the forever future, by speeding a collection along the path from accession to open for research. Should it later come to our attention that the collection is handled much more than anticipated, the application of more intensive preservation is always an option.

Before you get very far into the initial stages of processing your collection, make sure that you and your supervising archivist are in agreement about how much preservation work the collection will receive in addition to routine housing and labeling. It is a real waste of time to have to go back through a collection to remove acidic materials that should have been dealt with the first time through. It is also somewhat demoralizing to have spent your valuable time worrying over rusty fasteners in a collection that will only see a few researchers over time.


Unfolding or unrolling items is not always as easy as you might think, since materials that have been folded or rolled for many years may be difficult to flatten without damaging them. If your processing project calls for unfolding and/or unrolling, follow the guidelines below.

If the paper is quite flexible, it may be possible to unfold an item and gently and briefly fold it in the opposite direction to flatten it. No attempt should be made to eradicate fold lines; since folding generally results in broken paper fibers, fold lines must be considered permanent markings. It is a good idea to press very gently against fold lines with a bone folder to minimize the fold ridge. Unrolling flexible paper is often a matter of rolling items in the opposite direction around a tube, spreading the items out on a flat surface, and applying pressure to prevent curling.

When paper is not flexible or is in some other way damaged, items may be difficult to unfold or unroll. Such items require humidification to relax fibers that are locked into distorted positions. Consult with your supervising archivist about whether or not materials should be humidified (especially photographic materials) and, if so, for how long. If you do place materials in the Department's humidification chamber (the gray plastic garbage can), you are responsible for removing items from the chamber in a timely fashion. Materials left too long in the chamber risk being turned to pap by overexposure to moisture.

For step by step instructions on using the humidification chamber, see How to Humidify and Flatten Documents

Note that, in some instances, it is acceptable to store items folded or rolled. In fact, stationery that was meant to be used with a fold should be flattened only to return it to the condition in which it was used by the letter writer. Many sheets are thus stored folded in half. If an insignificant folded item would force the creation of an oversize category, you may decide to leave the item folded. On occasion, rolled items because of their size simply cannot be unrolled, but must be filed in their rolled state. If you think that you have an item in this category, consult with your supervising archivist.

Removing Fasteners

Fasteners--staples, paper clips, pins, rubber bands--are the most common type of damaging materials found in collections. Except for those made of brass, all metal fasteners rust, leaving permanent stains on papers. Fasteners often tear manuscripts as paper is flexed against them over long periods of time. Rubber bands dry out, disintegrate, and discolor paper. Not only do fasteners damage the paper they bind, they can abrade and stain adjacent items.

In the best of all possible worlds, all fasteners would be removed from all collections. In reality, however, it is rarely practical to remove them all. It is counterproductive to invest time in removing them and reestablishing the relationship among leaves of materials. When your collection does call for intensive processing, most of the time it is possible to remove rubber bands and to transfer materials from binders with metal parts to folders. Often you also can remove metal paper clips (almost ALWAYS if they are rusty). Staples are frequently left intact because of the time and effort it would take to remove them and because the damage they might do as they are removed exceeds the damage they may do over time.

Removal of fasteners should proceed gingerly so that no damage results.

  • Safe removal of staples means lifting each folded prong with a microspatula and then using the microspatula to lift the staple out.
  • Rusted paper clips should be gently pried up from the surface of the paper with the microspatula and then slipped off.
  • Remnants of desiccated rubber bands should be lifted off the paper's surface with a microspatula.
  • Brass studs or grommets should be left intact since their removal is certain to cause more damage than their presence.
  • Note that you should not attempt to separate glued or taped items that do not come apart easily. If separation is called for, remove these items from the collection for evaluation as conservation candidates.

Removal of fasteners should proceed so that the relationship between the leaves that had been fastened together is preserved. Often the relationship between one leaf and another is clear without fasteners or other aids. When the relation is evident from the materials themselves, you may simply let them lie there together (e.g., page two of a letter may be obviously related to page one since the stationery is the same for the two pages, but different from other leaves in the file; all pages of a typescript may already be clearly marked to show that they are from the same manuscript).

When fastener removal makes relationships among previously linked leaves unclear, one of three techniques may be employed to insure that the relationships are not lost. Consult with your supervising archivist to determine which of these options is best for your collection :

  • Materials may be annotated in the upper right hand corners to mark them as belonging together. Annotating is the most satisfactory option for preserving the relationship of one piece of paper to another, but it is also the most time consuming.
  • Plastic-coated paper clips may be used.
  • Inner folders may be created. Inner folders are made from large sheets of alkaline paper that are folded in half. Several sizes of paper are available. If appropriate, stamp the inner folder in red with "FRAGILE" and/or "PLEASE HANDLE CAREFULLY."

Handling Highly Acidic Materials

When highly acidic materials are interfiled with other items in a collection, acid can migrate from the acidic materials to their neighbors. The transferred acid may not only stain materials over time, but also may accelerate their embrittlement. Newspaper clippings are the most frequently encountered acidic materials. Others include pulpy (usually brown or yellow) papers from the early 20th century and organic materials like pressed flowers or locks of hair ("hairlooms" is the technical term).

There are several options for handling highly acidic materials; three of the most common are listed below. Note that organic materials should always be removed, but if these materials have informational value, you may use option three below.

  • Remove all highly acidic materials and place them in their own series or subseries. This works when the highly acidic materials can logically be grouped in a format-based series or subseries (e.g., a clippings series) or in a separate folder or folders within a series or subseries (e.g., a folder in a writings series). When highly acidic materials are closely related to other items, however, that relationship should be maintained (e.g., a clipping enclosed and referred to in a letter).
  • Enclose highly acidic materials in inner folders made of alkaline paper and interfile the foldered materials in the regular order. Inner folders are made from large sheets of alkaline paper that are folded in half. Several sizes of paper are available. Inner folders are annotated with their contents on the front top right-hand corner (in a chronological run, just the date will suffice) and, if appropriate, stamped in red with "FRAGILE" and/or "PLEASE HANDLE CAREFULLY." If the acidic materials are newspaper clippings, you may group them together in one inner folder filed at the back of the folder. It is not necessary to annotate the inner folder with the contents.
  • Preservation photocopy highly acidic materials, interfile the photocopies, and remove the originals or place them in inner folders. Photocopying a document onto alkaline paper is also an excellent way to preserve its contents and to shield the original from future handling. Preservation photocopying requires skills that most processors already possess--handling documents with great care and operating photocopiers. Preservation photocopying proceeds like any other photocopying except that you must use only alkaline paper (available in Tech Services). After photocopying, newspaper clippings are often put in the discard or return pile. Documents other than clippings, however, are often retained. In this case, place the original in an inner folder annotated to reflect its contents and stamped in red with "VERY FRAGILE."

Highly acidic materials may be handled in various ways within the same collection. You may remove the bulk of the clippings to a clippings series, subseries, or folders within a series or subseries, and photocopy or inner-folder those clippings that need to remain with particular letters. It is important to think about if this work is necessary and perform it strategically. You might opt to do nothing at all because it would be too time consuming to separate highly acidic materials and/or an overkill of effort given the research and artifactual value of the collection.

Housing and Labeling

Conservation professionals have come to consider rehousing in alkaline folders and boxes the most significant collection-level step that an archival repository can take to retard paper deterioration. Highly acidic containers actually accelerate the decay of their contents by transferring acid to the papers they touch and by emitting peroxides and other harmful by-products into the microenvironment enclosed by the boxes. When you take materials out of acidic liquor cartons, manila folders, kraft-paper envelopes, and place them in alkaline housing, you are taking an important step in preserving them. Likewise, when you take the additional step of segregating oversize items and special-format materials (pictures, audiotapes, etc.) and housing them with other such materials, you are not only protecting the special-format materials, but avoiding the damage they can cause to other materials when they are interfiled with a relatively uniform run of foldered papers. When you clearly label the contents of a collection, you decrease the need to rifle through other materials in search of the desired items, thus reducing the wear and tear materials must endure.

Researchers of the future will bless the unknown hands that made possible the survival of the raw materials of history. Those hands are yours.


Hollingers record cartons.jpg Several styles of boxes are used in Tech Services. SHC and SFC collections are typically, though not always, housed in gray document cases (“Hollingers”) while University Archives materials are housed in cardboard record center cartons (“Paige boxes”). These are special boxes that have been engineered to house archival materials. Note that these boxes do not come cheap; we do not retire them to the recycle dumpster until they are totally worn out.

You should consult with your supervising archivist about what type of box is right for your collection. In any case, be sure to neither overfill nor underfill boxes. Overfilling means that materials will become distorted over time and/or risk being damaged when they are removed and refiled. Underfilling means that folders will lean at an unhealthy angle that causes them and their contents to curl at the top or bottom. Cardboard follower blocks, made from alkaline board, are readily available to fill unused space and make folders stand erect in any type of box.

Box labels should contain the information necessary to promote quick and easy retrieval and refiling, which prevents unnecessary handling of materials. Closed items are always isolated in their own boxes and filed at the end of the collection AppendixE08.JPG

For more on box labeling see Box Labels


AppendixE01.JPG Folders offer support and protection to the materials they house. Clear and accurate folder labels promote quick and easy retrieval and refiling, which prevents unnecessary handling of items. Letter-size folders hold items up to 8-1/2 by 11 inches or so; legal-size folders hold items up to 8-1/2 by 14 inches or so. Larger items, except those that can be SAFELY folded ONCE to fit in letter-size or legal-size folders, call for oversize housing.

We almost always use legal-size folders for materials in the Southern Historical Collection and the Southern Folklife Collection. We typically use letter-size folders for materials in University Archives. To prevent dangerous shifting of materials, folders must snugly fit their box both in length and in width. Follower blocks take care of the slack when there are not enough folders to fill a box. Document cases require legal-size folders to fill the length requirement. You may use either legal- or letter-size folders in record center boxes, depending on which size better accommodates the materials you are housing. When only a few legal-size items are present in a collection destined for a records center box, these items may be stored folded so that the contents of the box can be housed in letter-size folders. What you cannot do is mix legal- and letter-size folders in the same box. If you do that, the letter-size folders will slide around in an unhealthy fashion.

The amount of material that can safely be placed in a folder depends upon the condition of the material and its value. When items are brittle, only a few should be placed in a folder to avoid excessive abrasion and each item may need its own inner folder. The occasional fragile, acidic, or slightly-torn item in an otherwise stable folder should be protected by enclosing it in an inner folder.

Except for folders containing only one or two leaves, all folders should be "squared." Use the pre-scored lines to "square" the edge of a folder to allow papers to stand vertically along the bottom. Place as many items as can fit easily into a folder with the bottom squared.

Each document should be able to stand up straight along the bottom of the folder without curling on the edge. Sturdier or thicker items (multipage reports, for example) may fill a folder more fully. Volumes that can comfortably fit in folders should be placed, spine down, in folders and added in the correct order within the collection’s folder numbering system. Length and width are primary considerations, but thickness also counts. You may decide that a volume of greater thickness than that provided by the pre-scored lines on folder bottoms is too large for normal foldering, although wide volumes can sometimes be comfortably accommodated by creating your own folds along the folder bottom. More than one volume occasionally may be housed in one folder, depending, of course, on the dimensions of the volumes involved

Volumes housed in bulky looseleaf binders may be removed from the binders and placed in a folder or folders if doing so does not affect the artifactual value of the item. In some cases, information of value appearing on the binder may be photocopied onto acid-free paper and preserved with the inner pages. Any volume that cannot be foldered, whether too large in height, width, or depth, is treated as a "separated" volume. See the section on Separated Volumes in the Items Separated page for instructions on handling a separated volume.

How much information appears on the folder label depends on the particular situation. Consult with your supervising archivist if you have difficulty determining how specific your folder labels need to be.

When foldering chronologized items, try to make reasonable folder breaks. Group by months, half-months, three-month spans, six-month spans, years, but avoid strange breaks like "3 January-13 February 1903." The same rule holds for alphabetized runs, where single letters or letter spans are fine, but "A-Cun" then "Cuo-Di" should be avoided. Note that a folder holding all material for the period April-July 1946 should be labeled "April-July 1946" even if there is no material for some days (even days in early April or late July). If one folder holds materials dated January-June 1888 and the next item is dated October 1888, start the next folder with October, not July. You may want to note in the description that there are no items for July-September 1888.

If the collection's original folders are in good condition and labeled clearly, we may opt not to re-folder. We always re-folder collections that arrive in hanging folders because hanging folders do not fit comfortably in our boxes. Consult with your supervising archivist to determine if your collection can be left in its original folders.

Whether or not the collection is re-foldered, you will number the folders in the collection. Begin at Series 1 with Folder 1 and continue in one run of numbers through all of the series until you reach the end. We do not always list folder numbers in the finding aid, but we do always number the folders themselves.

Restricted materials should be isolated in their own folders and labeled "RESTRICTED." Restricted folders do not necessarily need to be isolated in their own boxes if the restriction does not prohibit all access by researchers.

Boxes and Folders for Additions

Both folders and boxes should be labeled sequentially after the original collection or most recent addition. So, if the last box in the series was 29, the first box of the addition will be 30. Same goes for folders. If possible, folders and boxes that comprise an addition should include the addition name on the label.

Items Separated

Most of the materials in our collections are housed in standard archival folders and boxes. Some items, however, because of their size or other physical characteristics, cannot be housed in such containers. When items are separated from their collections for storage elsewhere, they are known as "items separated." Separating these items not only protects them, it also protects other materials in their collections from the damage these items might otherwise cause.

In the Arranging section, we discussed when and why to separate pictures. To recap, preservation points to isolating pictures. Isolated, they are subject to far less handling than they would receive were they interfiled with other materials. This is particularly important in the case of fragile pictures. The main of the collection can also benefit from the removal of pictures, especially when the pictures are photographic images. All forms of photography involve chemical processes that may continue, albeit at very slow rates, long after the image is set. Contact with these chemicals can seriously damage surrounding materials. Additionally, when the day comes that we have cold storage for photographs, separated photographs will be easier to identify and move to a better storage climate.

Papers or photographs that do not fit into legal folders without folding are typically separated from their collections. Medium large materials are housed 16" x 20" or 2' x 3' folders in flat, grey boxes and very large sheets are housed in map and print folders in map cases. Note that folding large items is often permissible if the item is of low artifactual value. The decision to fold, however, should be made in consultation with your supervising archivist. Cutting large items down to size is not acceptable.

Volume in folder.jpg
Volumes that fit in legal folders are typically housed in document cases or records cartons. If they do not fit, they are separated from the collection.

Finally, audiovisual materials, are separated from the collection.

Note that separating items physically has little impact on how you arrange or describe them. These items should be listed and discussed where they belong INTELLECTUALLY in your collection.

For the specifics on how to handle separated items see the Items Separated page.

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