How to preserve your family or community archive: the Collection Care Covid-19 lockdown blogs. Blog CC #14

  • Want to avoid damaging items?
  • Want to find out how to take a book off the shelf correctly?
  • Keen to handle and display things carefully?

Then read on for our top ten handling tips.

Physical damage common in archives:

Things are most often damaged accidentally. During handling, physical forces unintentionally created can affect the condition of archives (to find out what other risks to be mindful of see Blog CC#4).  Whether subjected to sudden major incidents or repeated minor events, items can be broken, torn, crumpled, dented, soiled, scratched . . . and this can allow other deterioration processes to begin.

Safe handling practice, and protective enclosures such as boxes, folders or display mounts made of archival quality material (see Blogs CC#5 and CC#8 to #11) will help prevent this.

Broken pendant seal on a parchment document

Broken pendant seal on a parchment document

Top 10 handling tips

1          Take great care

  • Archives are the original and often only version
  • They may look strong and robust but…
  • They may in fact be old, very fragile and vulnerable to damage
  • Not all damage can be easily repaired, and even if possible, repair is costly
  • If others are going to be handling the collection, consider preparing some simple guidelines to help them. You can help or oversee people when using any rare, fragile or particularly vulnerable items you look after.

2          Remember to care for yourself too…

  • Some boxes and volumes can be very heavy. Anything that needs moving is best put on a sturdy trolley that is easy to push. You don’t want to get halfway and find it is too much after all!
  • If possible, keep heavier or larger items where they can be handled and lifted more easily, such as at waist height
  • If an item is dusty or mouldy, protect your lungs by wearing a PPE dust mask rated FFP2 or FFP3 (for advice on preventing mould see Blogs CC#12 on creating an archive-safe environment and CC#13 on preparing for emergencies

3          No food or drink

  • It’s best to make sure that people know that smoking, eating and drinking in areas where collections are kept or used should be avoided because of the potential for damage to archives
  • Food also increases the risk of attracting insects and rodents. See Blog CC#12 for more on making sure the surrounding environment is safe
  • It’s good to double check all surfaces (and any equipment) are properly clean and dry before getting archives out – imagine it’s the kitchen table!!

4          Hands must be clean and dry

  • It’s best to handle archives as little as possible. You may need to wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid using hand creams as oils will transfer onto archive materials

5          Use gloves where required 

Photographs are especially vulnerable to damage, so,

  • Always handle photographic negatives by the edges
  • Powder-free plastic gloves give best grip and sensitivity
  • Avoid touching the surface of a photograph or negative

6          Pencils only!

  • Best not to use pens, markers or highlighters around archives – leaks and other accidents can happen. We have seen pen marks on large maps, probably caused by people attempting to unfold them while still holding a pen in one hand!

7          Support items

  • Items are best supported on a clean, clear table top, away from the table edges. Where near to, or hanging over edges of tables and trolleys archives are vulnerable to knocks, creasing and falls.

8          Use two hands

  • It’s best to use both hands to support items when moving them, even single sheets of paper. Archival folders or protective mounts can be used to support thin or fragile materials and reduce the need to handle them.  So called “handling dents” cannot be removed from paper.  If something is very large, awkward or heavy, it’s good to ask for help

9          Keep items in order

  • It’s best to keep bundles tidy, maintaining the order you find them in (see Blog #CM1 about preserving contextual information)

10       Books

  • Books can be removed carefully from shelves by holding the sides halfway down; the top of the spine is too easily damaged. If you can’t get a good grip, try moving the books next to the one you want first
  • Old books may have weak leathers, sewing threads or papers, so they may not be as strong as they appear. Remember that the hinge of the front and back cover (called the ‘joint’) is often worn, and materials may be very thin with little strength, so it’s best to open it cautiously and not too far, keeping it supported.
  • Many books were not designed to be opened flat, so open them only as far as they will open naturally and avoid forcing them
  • Supporting the opened book will allow it to be read without putting it under strain. You can buy foam book support wedges or book display pillows from conservation suppliers (see Blog CC#5 for archival quality material suppliers).
  • Take care not to squash the spine, but to leave space for it! A book with a ‘hollow spine’ is very easily damaged as the cover moves away from the book as it opens (leaving a hollow), and putting it on a flat surface does not give it room.  Other types of books will also have spines that need some room
  • Use curtain weights to hold pages down if needed

Archives on display

  • When you want to display something, it is worth noting the condition of it first, and checking it again afterwards
  • Keep an eye on it during display too if vulnerable
  • It’s good to check that display cases (and mounts or supports) are sound and secure, and positioned in a safe spot where things can be kept cool, out of direct sunlight, and dry. You don’t want to find your treasure is sitting in a showcase full of water when a roof leaks!
  • If it is special or particularly valuable, security may be worth thinking about too
  • A copy can be used instead of the real thing where vulnerable, or as with photographs or watercolours, it is sensitive to light damage
  • If displaying books, it’s best to have them well supported at a low angle not more than 30 degrees from the flat. Supports will only really do their job properly if made to fit the profile of the book when open at the page on display (if you have a rare or valuable book it might be worth asking a conservator to make one for you).   Pages can be held in place if necessary using strips of polyethylene.  You can secure the ends of the strip together carefully with a small piece of double –sided tape, but don’t let it stick to the item! 
  • It’s best not to keep anything out on show for a long time
  • If you are going to lend something for display elsewhere, it is worth checking that it will be looked after with the same care that you would take yourself! It is good to have a written agreement, particularly if you are not the owner of the item when more formal arrangements might need to be made.  There are pointers in the Caring for Collections action checklist (see Blog CC#3) and through the link below
  • It is good to protect anything you have to take out of the building in a sound box, and to keep it cool and dry

If you feel like you might need some help with any of this, you could contact a conservator.  See our upcoming blog CC#15 on working with a conservator.

Or see for contact details. You can also find useful advice on choosing and working with a conservator plus information about caring for a range of objects.

The National Archives has some handling guidelines and you can scroll down the British Library’s conservation page to find help on handing different types of documents. You can also find comprehensive information about exhibiting archives again from the British Library

Based on Gloucestershire Archives Heritage Hub Collection Care training developed by Ann Attwood ACR Collections Care Development Officer and Rachel Wales ACR Collections Care Conservator

At Gloucestershire Archives, through our National Lottery Heritage funded “For The Record” project, we will support people to: “document, care for, interpret and celebrate their personal and shared history”.

1 thought on “How to preserve your family or community archive: the Collection Care Covid-19 lockdown blogs. Blog CC #14

  1. Pingback: How to preserve your family or community archive: the Collection Care Covid-19 lockdown blogs. Blog CC #18 | Gloucestershire Archives

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