The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 9, Number 2
Apr 1985


Archives' Plan Stresses Storage Conditions

For the past several years the National Archives and Records Service has been working with the National Bureau of Standards to size up its preservation problems and work out a long-range plan for taking care of its over three billion paper documents. A condition survey has been made, a strategy devised, and a report published (National Archives and Records Service (NARS) Twenty Year Preservation Plan, available for $10 from National Technical Information Service (NTIS), Springfield, VA 22161; Publication Number is NBSIR 85-2999). Alan Calmes, NARS Preservation Officer, gave a long report on the plan and its genesis at the SAA meeting in September. His report was published in slightly shortened form in CAN.

Although NARS during that period was in a state that can only be described as one of distress, the quality of the plan does not seem to have been compromised. The statistical aspects of the survey were given careful attention and other important features seen to have been well thought out. As a result, the preservation program for the next 20 years is balanced: it does not ignore the bulk of the collection in order to treat the "treasures" or vice versa. It realistically addresses the almost overwhelming preservation problem of eventually "catching up" with treatment of the 150-year deteriorated backlog inherited when it opened in 1934, as well as keeping up with current acquisitions.

A "conceptual model" (like a mathematical model, but made up of logical arguments expressible in ordinary language) was developed by the operations research experts at NBS' s Center for Applied Mathematics. Calmes offers as an example of such arguments the following: "If the records are damaged, and if they are frequently used, and if they are intrinsically valuable, then copy the documents as soon as possible, furnish the copy to users, and schedule the original for conservation laboratory treatment." When the data from the survey was sorted out by computer, using this model, the textual records were shown to need the following kinds of treatment, according to a preliminary report is sued last May (the NTIS report has not yet arrived at the Newsletter office):

83% Holdings maintenance
12% No treatment
4.5% Copy
0.5% Laboratory treatment

On the basis of these results, the emphasis for paper-based records has been shifted from treatment and copying to improvement of storage conditions. More and better enclosures will be used: acid-free folders and boxes, and shrink-wrapping of books. The survey showed that even poor paper had lasted well if it was bound or otherwise protected from air, light, dust and physical damage.

Copying will continue to be the primary action taken for preserving documents with rapidly fading images. (Copying is also the only feasible preservation method for most nonpaper-based materials. They were surveyed and 21% found to need copying, but they do not seem to have been integrated into the final plan for textual materials.)

The plan has four "action categories": Holdings maintenance (housing, mainly); Interception and assessment of materials as they are used (i.e., protect or copy as necessary immediately, and schedule for later treatment); systematic duplication of thermofax and mimeograph documents; and Laboratory conservation of national treasures. The NARS preservation program also includes plans for upgrading the heating, ventilating and air conditioning system to control temperature, relative humidity and pollution.

The plan, which would cost $209 million by the year 2005 if implemented, has not been funded yet.

For more information contact Jill Merrill, NARS public affairs office, on 202/523-3099. By the time this issue is published, NARS will have become the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), but the telephone numbers will be the same.

The February 7 issue of the NCC Director's Report says that $3 million has been recommended in the President's budget proposal for startup funds for this plan. (The NCC is the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, a Washington-based organization whose members are organizations in the field of history.)

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