Paper Records

Paper records reflect what people think of traditionally as archives. They vary from institutional records and government documents to correspondence and diaries, and even in a digital world they continue to be a major part of the record of cultural and institutional life. In fact, the production of paper has increased substantially since the advent of the computer, and will continue to grow as people still rely on paper for a number of processes.

There are a few important archival theories that apply specifically to paper records, and are useful in this context as well. Original order is a fundamental part of archives, meaning the papers should as closely reflect the intentions of their creator rather than the intentions of the archivist. If the papers need to be rearranged for storage or to facilitate easier use, any changes from the original order should be tracked and made available to anyone who is looking at them. Appraisal is another important concept, in this context appraisals means decision-making on whether or not something should be kept permanently. While it is appealing to save everything, volume reduces your ability to keep the records you have in an accessible way, and can obscure the value of more important items. The third important concept to remember is provenance, meaning the source or origin of papers. Tracking provenance gives important information to users and provides context for collections.

Archival Boxes, photograph by Ron Wiecki
Archival Boxes, photograph by Ron Wiecki

With the large volume of records that many archives have, there are some ways to process these materials and make them available for use without going through every folder and doing detailed processing. In the 1990s, new processing rules were put together to address the large backlog of records in many archives, and to make materials available that had been sitting unprocessed for many years.  Requesting a list of folders from the donor provides enough description for most users, and it is usually sufficient to use those lists in combination with a robust historical description and provenance note. All boxes of records should be opened and assessed for major preservation issues, with particular attention to the presence of bugs or mold.

Archival folders in a clamshell archival box
Archival folders in a clamshell archival box

Placing paper into archival acid free folders and hard sided boxes will protect the records from many environmental conditions. If you re-folder paper, make sure to retain the original titles of the folders that they were held in and keep careful track of any changes you make. Brittle older paper can also be placed into a Mylar sleeve for protection, these sleeves can be purchased here. If you have a large amount of newsprint or similarly brittle paper, you can color photocopy those materials to allow for access and preserve the information.

Slumping Folders, courtesy of the NYU Archives.
Slumping Folders, courtesy of the NYU Archives.

One thing in particular to be aware of is to make sure that your folders are tightly packed into the boxes, as they can easily slump if the box is not full. Slumping can permanently damage the materials.

Description and organization will make the biggest difference in making these materials accessible, and protect the paper for the long-term.

For more information:

Indiana Historical Society-Lets Talk About Paper
NYU Preservation Tumblr


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