Issues and Concerns in Conserving and Digitizing Archival Collections

By tim gann

As a part of Archives Week 2016, NYU hosted an event focusing on a digitization project currently underway. The presentation, titled “What’s on the Back? Updating the Definition of Complete for Digitization Projects,” was given by Alex Bero and Maggie Schreiner, the conservator and archivist (respectively) working on the project. They detailed their work in conserving and digitizing materials from two collections: the Richard Maass collection, which contains materials related to the American Revolution, and the Sylvester Manor collection, which documented early settlers of Shelter Island in Eastern Long Island. As they explained the plans and decisions they made working on this project, they elucidated the many issues one must consider when engaging in such a project.
Bero and Schreiner began by discussing the Richard Maass collection, a portion of which had been digitized in the early 2000s. These items had also undergone a conservation process at that time, but when reexamining the materials to be digitized for this project, it became clear that the previous conservation efforts had in some ways damaged the materials through the use of “archival tape.” The previous project had used tape to hold materials together, but Bero went into detail on problems of using tape, “the evils of which are not to be underestimated,” as one slide warned. Bero explained that tape of all kinds, even those designated as “archival” (which he asserted was a relative term), can dry, embrittle, flake off, stain documents, adhere pages together, cover up or discolor images and words, and is often stronger than the document itself, which can cause tearing. As tape was used liberally in the earlier effort, Bero had to remove it all, which went at a rate of roughly one inch per hour.
Many of the documents were also sealed, but the seals were original, not remnants from the previous project. In order to get clear images of the materials, it was necessary to unseal them, and Bero acknowledged that this in effect changed the original nature of the document. Bero argued, though, that “digitization is a form of preservation,” and unsealed the documents through moisture. However, changing the nature of the document alters its representation of history, and as Michèle Cloonan points out in their essay “W(h)ither Preservation?” “to digitize a collection does not necessary lessen the demand for the original material.” In this case, Bero decided that a clean digital image was more important, but something has been lost for researchers looking into manuscripts from this era. It points to a preference of digital preservation over physical conservation.
Turning to the digitization side of the project, Schreiner discussed the previous digitization project, which, even though it was carried out roughly 15 years ago, still adhered to standards considered appropriate today, and were scanned as 600 dpi TIFF files. However, the backs of many documents were not digitized, and the digital surrogates were only made available as an online exhibit, not linked to the finding aid for the collection. The file names were also very unstructured, with no clear identifiers. This, of course, hinders the ability to find and identify these images, and had they been dissociated from their metadata, it could have created serious problems for access. Schreiner rectified this by renaming the old files, giving them a persistent ID, and integrating the new files while maintaining the same structure. Schreiner also made sure to mention the surrogates will be published through the finding aid as well once the project is complete.
From here, the presentation turned to issues surrounding the Sylvester Manor collection. This was a much larger collection, and the materials were in worse shape, in part due to the use of iron-gall ink in the documents, which can embrittle and speed up decay in paper, and the ink itself can become damaged and even fall off the paper. The papers needed to be moisturized delicately in order to unfold them, as too much moisture would damage the paper. Bero detailed how it was necessary to flatten documents through wetting them along creases, to clean them using vulcanized rubber sponges, and to mend them with paper and adhesives that blend in to the original document and do not obstruct anything. However, he also noted that this process is done only for handling the documents one more time – for the purpose of digitizing them for this project. Their conservation effort is only a very short-term solution, and the documents will not be handled after this project. Again, this demonstrates their belief that digitization is preservation, but it does not clash as much with Cloonan’s suggestion cited above in regard to the other collection. Here, Bero made clear that these materials were badly deteriorated, and the idea that even with these efforts they could only be handled once means that without digitization, these would be inaccessible. It was a more clear-cut decision, and is a better example of when digitization may be the only way to preserve documents properly.
Schreiner noted that these fragile documents were just a small portion of the collection, and had been set aside because they were too fragile to travel. Much of the material was marked for digitization through a vendor, which they employed especially because of their inability to digitize oversized items in-house. Though digitizing oversized items was expensive, they were able to do so because they found room in their budget after calculating all other expenses. This provided an example of how financial issues can potentially restrict an institution’s ability to complete the projects it wants. It certainly gave some insight into why these collections were being revisited. Had they not found the money in the budget, they may have been forced to revisit the collections again in the future to capture the oversized items.
In a Q&A session after the main presentation, they explained that NYU has committed to maintaining and migrating the digital files as necessary, putting to rest common concerns about the stability of preserving digital media. They also explained that the process was facilitated by the existing finding aid and metadata standards, which they update as needed.
One thought I had (which I thought would be rude to vocalize, though perhaps I should have) was that this project was yet another effort to preserve the historical records of white patriarchal society. The fact that these collections had previously been digitized in part made me wonder if perhaps there were other collections that had been passed over which could have offered more diverse perspectives. As this was also a conservation effort, and the materials being as old as they are, it is understandable that these were prioritized. Another factor could have been their source of funding, which came from the Gardiner Foundation, representing a family some of whose members had openly endorsed slavery. This might possibly point to the amount of influence donors have on an archive’s ability to pursue projects; however, I regret to have not explored this topic with the presenters.

Cloonan, Michele Valerie. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy. Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 231-242

Gardiner’s Island: A Rich History. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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