All the efforts involved in establishing a church archives can be meaningless if all our historical materials will be unusable in 25 years. Most of the items in our archives have "permanent" value, so attention must be given to conserving these valuable materials.
Most church archives will not be blessed with having a trained archivist or conservator to operate the archives. Many sophisticated techniques used in the restoration of material cannot and should not be attempted by church archivists. There are measures and actions, though, that can be taken to lengthen the life span of church archives collections.
Nature of Material
The material nature of the archival record is diverse. Paper is the most common material found in archival collections. Leather, cloth, film-based material, photographic image and tape recordings can also be found in archives. A majority of our historical records are maintained on highly acidic paper. It has been determined that acidity is one of the primary causes of paper deterioration. Most of the paper produced today has a life expectancy of less than 50 years. The rate of deterioration is dependent upon several external factors, such as environment, storage conditions and handling procedures.
In general, the temperature of the archives storage area should be maintained between 60° and 70° with a variation of no more than 5°F. Fluctuations in temperature causes paper to expand or contract as the temperature increases or decreases and causes paper to weaken and break. It is best to store historical materials in an area that has constant temperature control. Avoid areas that only have heating and cooling on weekends. Attics are awful locations for the storage of valuable material.
Relative humidity should be maintained between 45% and 55% with a variance of no more than 10%. Humidity fluctuations combined with temperature fluctuations can weaken paper. An additional result may be the growth of mold which stains, softens and crumbles paper. Basement corners can have high levels of humidity and should be avoided as storage sites.
The most effective way to maintain a constant environment is through air conditioning. It can serve four purposes, if manufactured to do so: to ventilate, to filter the air and to control temperature and humidity. Air conditioning can be the most important factor in the preservation of collections.
Paper is adversely affected by both natural and artificial light. Ultraviolet rays emitted by sunlight or fluorescent lights can damage material and cause light sensitive items such as photographs and blueprints to fade. Keep archival material away from windows or at least have windows shaded. Use caution in displaying original material for extended periods of time under fluorescent lights. Incandescent bulbs can also be harmful due to the heat emitted from these lights.
Insects, rodents and other pests feed on substances found in collections. Insects generally prefer dark, warm, and damp areas and usually will be active at night when people are not present. The damage they cause is irreversible. Rodents can nibble away at collection items or eat them in their entirety; rodents like to use shredded paper as a nesting material. Good housekeeping methods and monitoring the area for signs of vermin are needed.
The storage area for the archives ought to provide security with limited access. The curious should not be allowed to rummage through the church’s historical records.
People abuse is the most constant threat to archival collections. Records, particularly brittle and fragile materials, need to be handled with care by church staff and researchers. Smoking, drinking, and eating should not be allowed near the records.
Church archivists need to be aware that disasters can destroy the recorded history of a church in a matter of minutes. Disasters can result from fire, flooding, storm, or broken steam pipes and can destroy or damage a few items or entire collections. Some precautions, such as an adequate sprinkler system, not storing materials under water pipes and not storing materials on the floor or in a basement can sometimes save valuable records from destruction. Having a secure microfilm copy of the church’s records is one way to safeguard against such catastrophes. The Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville, TN and several Baptist state convention historical organizations microfilm church records, either at a low cost or free of charge.
Storage of Material
The type of storage area needed depends on the size and scope of the archival holdings. Some churches may be able to store its material in a large safe or a series of filing cabinets. Larger church archives will need shelving. Metal cabinets and shelves are recommended for storage of historical records. Wood cabinets and shelving, if used, need to be sealed with a varnish. Raw wooden shelves should never be used.
Acid-free file folders and boxes are available for the storage of church archives material. Storage sleeves for photographs, slides and negatives can be purchased from archival supply companies. Most archival quality supplies are not available in office supplies stores. A few companies that sell archival storage materials are listed at the end of this article.
Controlling the environment and storing materials properly are fundamental to caring for collections. Church archivists can take a few more direct actions to preserve their material.
Church archivists should attempt to integrate conservation practices into each phase of archival work. For example, when sorting through a collection the processor can carefully flatten folded documents, clean items, and remove metal paper clips, pins, pressed flowers and rubber bands. Brass clips and fasteners do not have to be removed. Plastic clips or stainless steel clips can be used as fasteners. Records can be cleaned with a soft-bristled brush. These actions not only help preserve the material but enhance the appearance of the collection.
Bound volumes contain much of our historical information. Similar sized volumes can be stored upright on shelves or in folders in boxes. Larger volumes usually are best stored flat on the shelf. Volumes stored within folders should be filed spine down within the folder. Volumes that have loose or missing covers or that are otherwise not intact may be handled in several ways. All volumes with broken or weak binding should be tied, using unbleached cotton or linen tape. Additional protection may be provided by enclosing the volume in a polyester book jacket. Special archival quality boxes can be purchased to store fragile volumes. Scrapbooks and albums need to be stored flat in boxes.
Other preservation tasks such as cleaning and oiling of leather bindings and the encapsulation of fragile documents may be undertaken by church archivists after training or reading on the subject. Deacidification, mending of items and fumigation are complex conservation methods and should not be attempted without specific training.
Proceed with Caution
A word of caution to church archivists attempting to mend records. Never use pressure sensitive tape to mend anything of historical value. Tape can cause permanent damage to the material. One of the guiding principles of conservation is that no procedure or treatment should be undertaken that cannot be undone if necessary. It is important to realize the fact that in some instances it may be best to do nothing at all to restore an item.
It is the responsibility of the church to maintain its records in a safe and secure environment. Materials ought to be stored in archival quality containers. These two actions are fundamental to the preservation of materials. Additional tasks of flattening, cleaning, and mending can add further to the life of our church’s historical records.
The best book available to assist church archivists in the area of conservation is Archives and Manuscript: Conservation by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler. It is available from the Society of American Archivists, 330 S. Wells, Suite 810, Chicago, IL 60606.
Several companies provide archival quality storage containers. Ritzenthaler’s book lists several suppliers with their addresses. Three companies are listed below.
Gaylord Bros., Inc.
Syracuse, New York 13221
P. O. Box 6185
3810 South Four Mile Run Drive
Arlington, Virginia 22206
P. O. Box 101
South Canal St.
Holyoke, Massachusetts 01011