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A Survey in the Making: Archives and Preservation

One of the most recent initiatives in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation department is the creation of the Archives Preservation Program. The program supports the long term maintenance of archival materials held by the archival repositories in Bobst Library. The three collecting repositories—Fales, Tamiment and the University Archives—house thousands of linear feet of collections on and off-site, collect a wide variety of formats, and provide continual access to the collections for researchers, teaching faculty and their classes. For more information on the types of materials each repository collects, visit their websites (linked from the About section of this blog) and check out their collection development policy statements.
A major step towards developing a long term archives preservation plan involves performing a condition survey (or preservation needs assessment) for all of the collections managed by each repository. A good example of this can be found at the Washington State University Library’s comprehensive survey project website. By gathering data about every collection, we hope to gain a better overall understanding of the health of these collections, from condition of the housing to the materials housed within. Such data will inform archivists, curators and preservation staff about preservation needs, whether on a macro scale (cross-repository space issues, for example) or on a micro scale (such as item-level deterioration issues).
One of the most significant features of the survey is the survey tool and the foundations on which it was built. Here’s a screen shot of the database’s main data entry screen:

Database screenshot4

Sorry it is so small; a larger version can be emailed if you would like to see it more clearly.

The survey tool we use is a modified version of the Columbia survey tool built for a Mellon-funded grant in 2003, which itself is based on the PACSCL survey methodology. The survey tool is an MS Access database that accommodates collection level, box/folder level, and item level information aggregated by collection.
Being able to work off of a database designed by archivists for archivists was a major boon for us; we were able to cut down the time it took to develop our local practices and needs based on the work that both PACSCL and Columbia had already done. Speaking of things designed by archivists for archivists, one key tool that significantly aids our workflow is a plug-in developed in-house that imports collection data (down to the box level) directly from the Archivists’ Toolkit, thereby creating a record for every collection we intend to survey in our database. Our developer released it on the AT website, and anyone interested in developing code relevant to MS Access and the AT could begin with this. The AT has also been invaluable in creating location lists from which we can set our weekly work plans and make long term projections. Plans to develop a plug-in to map data back into the AT Assessment Module, which was also modeled off of the PACSCL survey methodology, will be further investigated after the proposed AT-Archon integration. As it is, anything that will automate our workflow is a lifesaver.
If you are familiar with the Columbia survey project or the PACSCL survey, you will recall that both targeted “hidden” collections, a.k.a backlogs. The NYU Condition Survey targets all collections, in all phases of custody, but for the initial year of the survey we maintain a strict focus on completely processed collections. This decision serves our immediate needs and primary goal: to provide concrete data to assist archivists in selecting and prioritizing items and/or collections for preservation actions and conservation. Overall, the data can inform management decisions and aid in advocating for optimum preservation conditions (scaled against a collection’s relative value) while creating a processing plan or processing priorities, for a grant application, or while allocating budgets and resources.

Condition Survey photo 1_1We implemented the survey this past summer with our first 2 teams testing out the surveying waters (each team consists of two surveyors). The ramp up was not as rough as expected, and it provided a useful period of learning about what parts of the workflow needed improvement, where the database needed improvement, and how to alter the training to better prepare the survey assistants. On the left you can see one team hard at work in the stacks.

Below you’ll see more delighted, well-trained survey assistants. Mostly what we’ve seen so far is overstuffed boxes causing unnecessary pressure on the materials (putting them at risk of damage during retrieval or from other items in the box) and under-stuffed boxes, which results in slumping thereby damaging items in situ. Another common issue is inappropriate box sizes that take extra space on shelves and put items at risk of damage while shifting inside the box. While any number of reasons can explain these discrepancies—archival managers and standards change over time; supplies can be hard to come by and vary according to vendor—it is a relief to know the extent of the issue and exactly where it is located at the box level. Finally, we have uncovered a fair amount of inactive mold (on paper, and, surprisingly, even on a few slides), which we immediately isolated for cleaning.

Condition Survey photo 4_1With the survey four months old, and running at a good clip (7.5 minutes per linear foot or 40 linear feet/day, thanks to our dedicated survey assistants!), it is time to run some reports and see where we stand as a whole. If anyone else is running a similar survey or thinking about it, feel free to contact me for further discussion.
Happy Archives Week 2010, everyone.
–Jennifer Waxman, Preservation Archivist

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