If the oldest document you’ve ever handled was your school report or a letter from your grandparents, you might assume such family relics will last for centuries if kept in a neat plastic folder in a drawer. And as a backup measure you might consider scanning them and passing digital images onto the next generation. In fact preserving old documents turns out to be much more complex than you might think.
At a talk entitled Archive Conservation: who cares – why bother? Andrew Davidson, conservator at Shropshire Archives for more than 25 years, introduced his audience to some of the enemies of paper and parchment that left us marvelling that any archive documents survive at all. Damp, light, sulphur dioxide in the air, vermin and inappropriate storage are all major causes of document degradation and that’s before anyone handles the document when wear and tear, dirt and grease add to the cocktail of potential damage. For digital material the major threat is technological obsolescence – today’s DVDs and memory sticks are yesterday’s punch cards and floppy disks. That scanned material is only of use if it can be found, retrieved and read.
Archive documents are not just primary sources for historical research, although that in itself is a huge field. There are many legal, economic and social reasons for keeping original records of all kinds. The role of the archive is to preserve these documents, organise and describe them, and make them publicly available.
We learnt that there is a major difference between preservation and conservation. Preservation is about extending the life of an archive document by protecting it from damage, providing suitable packaging, secure storage and environmental control. Conservation involves cleaning and repairing damaged items while keeping to the principles of minimal intervention, using appropriate materials and proven methods, and ensuring repairs are reversible. Shropshire Archive’s conservation studio was an eye-opener as we witnessed documents being washed, saw repairs effected using fine handmade Japanese paper, and admired the painstaking work of the team who had taken a filthy bundle of old letters and separated, cleaned and mounted them into a handsome bound volume.
Preserving and conserving archives is an important part of our heritage and culture. Without the work of people like Andrew and his team, there would be far fewer documents available. We care, so please bother.