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How to Spring Clean Your Collection — Thoughtfully

Spring is in the air, which means that people and organizations across the country are beginning to do some deep cleaning. The phrase “out with the old, in with the new,” however, doesn’t exactly sit well with people like us who are focused on preserving history. 

One of the most frequently asked questions we get at HistoryIT is, “How do you determine what’s ‘important’ when it comes to preserving archive materials?” Whether they’re embarking on a digital preservation project or just culling files to do a bit of tidying, organizations want to know how to choose what to keep and what to toss (or donate or sell). 

The unpopular, but honest, answer is that we don’t know which items matter. What’s important now might not be relevant ten years from now, and vice versa. What we preserve is the story that continues, so we need to build a strategy that allows us to preserve all of it. Otherwise, future generations won’t have access to potentially key pieces of uncensored information.

Despite the fact that we cannot reliably determine what will be important, we can determine whether items fall into the scope of an organization’s mission and legacy. With that in mind, here are a few examples of things you can leave out of your digital preservation:

  • Anything moldy or otherwise damaged beyond repair. Mold will endanger your entire collection — stop it in its tracks and get rid of moldy materials as soon as you discover them. I say more about mold in my blog about the threat that water poses to an historical collection.
  • Duplicates beyond three copies. If you have fifty copies of something — or even five — select the three in the best condition and toss or recycle the rest. We’re preservationists, not hoarders.
  • Older AV formats (including VHS) that you are not prepared to pay to digitally preserve. Magnetic tape, such as VHS, cassette and reel to reel, are currently at peak degradation. This means that you’ve already likely lost some or all of the content on those tapes. And you are losing more every day.
  • Non-original, widely available material such as unannotated old but not rare books. Doing a quick search on World Cat to see how many library copies there are is a great way to assess whether a book might be valuable.
  • Items likely duplicated in other collections or would be a better fit for another organization’s collections, such as a national association’s pamphlets that are currently stored in a state university archive.
  • Things outside your collections’ scope, such as financial, business, or tax records that are intermingled with archival materials. Many professional or social organizations, for example, choose to limit the scope of their collections to materials that document the history of the chapter and its individual members.

The issue of determining the scope of your collections can be as formal or as informal as an organization desires. Larger organizations, especially those who specialize in history, such as museums, often have formal collection policies outlining the types of items they will and will not accept. Many have an official committee that reviews potential donations and acquisitions to determine whether they fall within the guidelines laid out in those policies. 

Smaller organizations, however, do not usually need to take such a structured approach. They can often make do by reviewing materials on a seasonal basis and appointing someone who has a clear understanding of the desired scope.

Once you have determined which items you do in fact plan to keep, be sure to store them in acid-free archival boxes and folders for safe keeping. We recommend Hollinger Metal Edge, which supplies archival (acid-free) containers for all types of material. 

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