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Paper Problems: Managing Archives in a Small Museum

by Anjuli Grantham

Most small museums have archival collections, and most small museum professionals scratch their head and fret about the best way to manage these collections. After all, although both archival and object collections are critical to our missions, these different types of collections are rooted in different professional practices. Della Hall and Charles Hilton offered sound advice on managing and making accessible archival collections. Here are some key messages for all to consider:

  1. Don’t make “artificial collections.” These are assemblages that are connected by subject matter but not by provenance. Always think about future curators and archivists before you divvy up archival collections— how will someone in the future know where that letter from a fox farm came from, or that it’s a reliable source, if it’s separate from the rest of the material with which it arrived at the museum? It is acceptable to physically separate collections (storing photos, letters, and A/V materials from a discrete collection in different places, for example) but it is imperative to retain intellectual control and know that these groupings are connected.
  2. If the archival collections are clean and not fragile or damaged, it is acceptable to store the collection in non-archival materials. There is no need to switch out folders or store everything in a $15 box. The same holds true for photos; photo sleeves should be used for fragile and damaged images, but there is no need to put every image in a protective sleeve. I’m seeing huge savings here. However, always think about how the different papers will impact one another. Newspaper is highly acidic, for example, so use your best judgment when considering storage solutions.
  3. Don’t worry too much about arrangement. Yes, finding aids are essential, but based on the collection, you can describe the materials in a general manner. There is no need for itemized cataloging of most archival materials.
  4. Don’t start a digitization project before you have a digital management policy. Scanning photos might be a one-time act, but ensuring that the digital surrogate is not corrupted takes years of diligence.
  5. You aren’t alone! In addition to excellent resources available online, Della and Charles highly recommended the book The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository by Christina Zamon.

Thank you to Della and Charles for presenting this very useful information. Hopefully next year they will present again on archival management so that small museum professionals can continue to gain confidence in managing our diverse holdings.

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