Protect Your Records

This page is written with the general public in mind.

To conduct the project, direct access to original sources was required, meaning photographs, original letters, reports and other material.  Usually, that material resided in professional archives managed by an expert staff  with budgets, links to funding sources,  and they had set priorities for their work to pay for preservation over time, or conservation, and also had a disaster plan.

Just as often, I had to examine original material in private hands, especially letters, old reports and photographs.   A vast treasury of historically important material has been retained in attics, closets and garages.   A box of such records was also found at the Prosperity Baptist Church, and over the last two years (since 2015), I’ve been digging through original files at the Loudoun County Public School system.  We would like to see that material made available to the general public (probably by scanning the material), especially if it gives us a clearer understanding of Loudoun’s African-American heritage.

With that in mind, I want to suggest readers with such material consider preservation and conservation.

Preservation comes in many forms, some quite surprising.  Consider the humble paper clip.  I’ve seen many people simply flick away old paper clips; but bear in mind that they can tell us something about the document to which they are attached.   Take for example an undated document held together with the Rink Paper Clip.  Though the clip’s presence isn’t definitive proof, it’s unlikely the document was created before 1903, in fact not before 1905, since while it was patented in 1903, advertising didn’t start until 1905.

1903 Rink Paper Clip

1903 Rink Paper Clip

The need for preservation and conservation is more urgent than you might imagine.   One of our primary sources of information spent decades collecting oral histories and photographs, only to see everything go up in a house fire.  None of it had been digitized and unfortunately, the people who had been interviewed had passed on by the time of the fire.    Consider having an Old documents preservation scheme, even at home.

preservation005Also, please do list the dates, locations and names of people associated with any photograph.  I recently was asked to review a large photo album from Germany.  The request was to scan each photo and try to identify the time of the original picture and who or what the subject was.  That’s often very hard, if no information has already been provided.

In an archives or library, a trained staffer will handle preservation activities, including binding, book repair, environmental monitoring, shelf maintenance, etc.  That’s the sort of thing I did at Blair House, Guest House of the President, many years ago.  See Blair House.

It’s also certainly a program we have recommended for the Prosperity Baptist Church in Conklin, which has a large amount of archival material.  Our hope is that future generations of scholars will visit the Church and see the original documents, so a professional preservation and storage policy will be essential.  But what about the raw data?  That must be preserved as well.

At the archives of the Circuit Court in Leesburg, the physical preservation of material goes on regularly; but they also photocopy their material.  With today’s technology, that means high density, digital color scanning.   If you are reading this page and have a box of letters, consider that anyone can do what I’m suggesting.  Even if you can’t preserve your material beyond using acid free folders and boxes or plastic protective sheets, scan everything, then share.  That way, if he house does burn down, the data is retained.  Of course, you also need to catalog the material.  Photographs need to be labeled and dated, for example.

preservation004

The wonderful little photo to the left is of NY actor William “Billy” McCrystal, who was playing Rusty Snow in the 1922 film version of the  Ghost Breaker.  The photo was discovered in shoebox full of early Vaudeville memorabilia.  Because of the historical importance of the photo, we made sure it was protected by being placed inside an acid free “envelope.”  That way, people can closely study the photo without risk of damage.   Of course, we also insist that cotton gloves also be used.   This simple and inexpensive process will save many local historically important photos and letters. They must all be scanned as well and properly labeled and shared.  An even better idea is encapsulating the sheet between two sheets of polyester film (Mylar type D or Melinex type 516).  That will remove most of the air; but requires care.  Talk to an archivist first.

Blairhouse026

The Beautiful painted bay leaf above was discovered by me in a bible and later identified as having been the property of the Lincoln family.  It was too fragile to move with gloves, so special tools were employed with the help of the Library of Congress.  Measures were then taken to safely display the painted bay leaf.   This is an important point to remember.  If your artifact is very fragile, first photograph and then remove it with the help of a professional.  Don’t do this yourself.

I then suggest placing the images or videos, etc. on appropriate media for storage away from your home or institution.  In many cases, I suggest donating the material to the Balch Library or some other appropriate archive or library — for the benefit of the general public.

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