CoPAR Bulletin 3: Easy Steps for Preserving Your Anthropological Records

by Mary Elizabeth Ruwell

Anthropological records can be on any medium: paper, tape, film, disk, and in many sizes and shapes. Sometimes conditions in the field dictate less than ideal supplies and techniques, but there are many steps that you can take to make sure your records survive.

The First Step: Identification

The first step is to know which of the records you have need to be kept permanently. Anthropologists create field notes or research records, correspondence with colleagues, administrative files, and reference files. Reference files are usually copies of the work of another person or another organization and do not have permanent value. On the other hand, photographs of an excavation in progress or an ethnographer’s field diary are irreplaceable. Look around your home and office and determine which of your records are unique or significant. (See CoPAR Bulletin No. 2, Taking Stock of Your Records).

Step Two: Know Your Formats

The next step is to buy good quality supplies for the long-term documents: rag paper, high quality audio or video tape, stable ink or pencil. Good supplies are usually not much more expensive than inferior materials, but you need to know what is appropriate for each kind of record.

Paper. Ordinary paper contains lignins from wood pulp used in manufacturing, as well as other chemicals. The acids not only break down paper fibers over time, they also migrate from one piece of paper to another. Thus an old newspaper clipping stored in a book eventually embrittles and discolors what may have otherwise been long-lived adjacent pages. Acid-free paper and boxes provide a better environment and minimize deterioration from acid. Since anthropologists often keep records for long-term office storage, starting with acid-free materials eliminates the need to rehouse archival files. For important documents created on inferior paper, information can be easily preserved by photocopying onto acid-free paper. Acid-free copy and laser papers can now be purchased in office supply stores. Acid-free boxes and other supplies can be ordered from archival suppliers (See CoPAR Bulletin No. 12, Locating Archival Supplies).

Photographs.  Photographic prints are paper treated with chemicals, while photographic film consists of a base and emulsion layers processed with chemicals. Chemical residues left over from processing film and prints create the most obvious problems, so it is important to process film in a reputable laboratory that tests its equipment. The most common test is done with methylene blue to measure residual sulfide. Most photographic papers are stable if they are well processed, although resin-coated (RC) paper still does not meet requirements for archival purposes. Modern negative bases have improved since the highly undesirable cellulose nitrate and cellulose diacetate manufactured between 1910 and 1960, but cellulose triacetate (the most common film base used today) does not seem to keep as well over time as expected, and polyester film is used for preservation microfilming and archival copying projects. (See CoPAR Bulletin No.12, Basic Steps in Preservation of Photographs.)

Color film is made with organic dyes that decompose fairly rapidly, so that it is much less stable that black and white film. At this time, Fujichrome is recommended for color slides rather than Kodachrome or Ektachrome. The best precaution for color film is to make a duplicate set of images, preferably in black and white. With color, it is advisable to make multiple sets, one of which is stored well (in a cool dark place) and not used. Storage considerations for prints, slides, and negatives are similar to that for paper since you do not want chemicals that create reactions. Choose inert plastics like polypropylene and mylar for photo sleeves, or use unbuffered acid-free paper.

The best strategy is to talk to your local photographic supplier or in-house shop. See if they know what you are talking about if you say “archival processing.” Many camera stores now stock archival supplies for storing photographs.

Tapes, Disks and Electronic Records.  Computer tapes as well as audio tapes are made with an emulsion layer as a base which may change over time at different rates. This is also a problem with most CDs that are combinations of different layers. Physical storage is therefore similar to film since temperature fluctuations will aggravate deterioration. Copy cassettes onto reel-to-reel tapes if possible. Tapes should be stored vertically and protected from dust. Tape signals can travel through the base if they are not played for several years. Archival supplies are available for all shapes and sizes of tapes and disks.

Electronic technology is not a preservation medium. Paper printouts, even those on low grade computer paper, are still considered more stable than tape or disk. On the other hand, it is always simpler and less expensive to store a record in the medium in which it was created. It is crucial, however, to make backup copies of computer files, properly stored (in a cool location with stable humidity) separately from the originals. Because of rapid changes in hardware, it is important to copy computer files regularly, converting to the latest technology available. (Also see CoPAR Bulletin No.15, Managing Electronic Records.)

Step Three: Prepare The Records

Another step is to make sure you remove materials like paper clips, rubber bands, and wrapping material. If you want to save artifacts or herbal materials, such as flowers, make sure they have their own appropriate enclosures. Isolate newspaper and thermofax copies since they are both acidic and will damage surrounding papers or photographs.

Motion picture film should be stacked horizontally to prevent warping. Multiple copies will prevent loss of information; videocassette copies can be used for reference purposes. However, videos are an electronic medium and present long term storage difficulties.

The Last Step: Storage

The last step is to make sure you have good storage. If you are still using fragile items and photographs, protect them with mylar sleeves. Maps and drawings stored folded will crack over time. If they fit into boxes, map drawers or blueprint cabinets, they should be stored flat in acid-free folders sized to fit the box or drawer. Very large items can be rolled around a large acid-free core, covered by an outside layer of acid-free paper or inert polyester. It is useful to have a photograph or microfilm of the item for reference to avoid the damage of repeated unrolling. Having everything labeled and inventoried reduces handling and makes your records accessible, especially to yourself.

Records should be stored at a constant temperature and humidity. Environmental cycling produces expansion and contraction, weakening paper fibers and affecting emulsion on film and tape. Cooler temperatures are recommended for film and tape, particularly color film. Good air quality is important because pollutants, such as sulphur and nitrogen, and dust affect records.

When you are no longer using your records, think about donating them to a repository. (See CoPAR Bulletin No. 5, Organizing and Transferring Your Records, CoPAR Bulletin No. 4, Finding a Home For Your Records). If you have collaborators or graduate students, you can furnish always furnish them copies. Having your records in a repository will insure that they will be available for use by others. Remember that you can place some restriction on the records to protect privacy and cultural sensitivity.

More Information

Kenworthy, Mary Anne, et al. 1988 Preserving Field Records: Archival Techniques forArchaeologists and Anthropologists. The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Rose, Carolyn, ed. 1992 Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Curators and Collectors. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

National Park Service 1998 Conserv O Gram Series. Superintendent of Documents. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. Also available in Adobe Acrobat PDF format:

Ogden, Sherelyn, ed. 1994 Preservation of library and Archival Materials: A Manual.

Northeast Document Conservation Center, Andover.

Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn 1994 Preserving Archives and Manuscripts. Society of American Archivists, Chicago.

Van Bogart, John W. C. 1995 Magnetic Tape Storage and Handling: A Guide for Libraries and Archives. The Commission on Preservation and Access, Washington, DC.

Wilhelm, Henry 1993 The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs. Preservation Publishing Company, Grinnell, IO.

Also: excellent free pamphlets are available from Gaylord Brothers and University Products (see CoPAR Bulletin No. 8, Locating Archival Quality Supplies).

Sign In


Reset Password

Please enter your username or email address, you will receive a link to create a new password via email.