Archive school

By Inger Enquist (February 2016)


Archives may be housed under different types of roofs, not only in archival institutions but also in museums and libraries. The handling of materials is much influenced by the prevailing professional tradition. Since such a tradition may not always be good for the archives I have decided to write this Archive School. I hope you will find it useful.

Arranging and describing an archive

-Gather all the documents.

-Read about the creator. Look into the formalities. Who owns the archive? What about access? Is it in any way restricted?

-Arrange a suitable place to work with the materials; you need space to sort documents.

-Browse through the materials.
Make a few notes about the types of document and the years. Do not start to sort or move different types of documents. Be careful to keep existing relationships between documents. To archives context is everything.

-Think. Take your time.

-Start outlining a possible structure.
Usually the structure needs to be revised several times as the work proceeds and new types of documents or formal relationships between activities are discovered. The technique is based on creating record series based on the type of document, not subjects. Minutes, correspondence, photographs etc.

-When working it is practical to make notes about facts that should be included in the introduction or formal descriptions. If you work in a database for archives, this description is made on the highest level, the fonds’ level, informing about the whole archive.

-Create series that are evident from looking at the materials. Start with the easiest ones. Normally there is some kind of order among the materials. Your work shall reflect this order and the work of the creator. If there is a bunch of contracts with artists, make a series of them. Deal first with the relatively easy types of documents to get them out of the way. Thereafter you get a better overview of the more troublesome ones. Do not read all the papers aiming at arranging them by subject. It will take too much time, be confusing and also lead to a loss of information.

Please observe carefully if there are documents that do not belong to the archive, there may be documents of another provenance. Put them in a separate series at the end or remove them.

-Arrange a hierarchy among the series so that the most important series come first.
For example minutes give good overviews and can be considered more important than vouchers.

Make of note of which way the series is arranged - alphabetically, chronological or numerical. Specify what you think is necessary for understanding the content of the series. Note if parts of the series are missing. Guide the scholars to materials by specifying interesting materials or indicating which way they may be used. Make the cross references that you find necessary.

Note where the materials are physically kept. Sometimes certain volumes are kept on special shelves because they are too big or need to be stored in a special climate.

The boxes should be pretty full. Sometimes you may need to put more than one series into a box and this also saves some space. When doing so you need to make a reference in the inventory to locate in which box the series of interest is found.

Use permanent labels for the boxes. However, they will sooner or later come off so to be on the safe side you also need to write directly on the box or put a copy of the label in the box.

Use a permanent pen when you write things you want to last. A pencil is best to have when arranging papers so that you do not by mistake get colour marks on your documents. Use permanent paper or acid free paper for your inventory. Keep one copy of the inventory together with the archive.

When working with the documents you shall take away clips, plastic etc.

There are types of paper that do not last long, for instance coloured paper or termo paper. Self-copying paper is toxic.

Separate different materials with a piece of acidfree or permanent paper. The material closest to your documents is the most important; the folder is more important than the box.

Preferably mark photos only on the cover; photocopying damages the photos. Scanning is much better.

More than one copy of a document is normally not necessary. If you need to choose which copy has the highest information value, it is recommended to save the one with notations rather than the nice and clean one.

Old vouchers are often not necessary to keep; they are normally on very bad paper and usually the same information is found in other documents like ledgers.

Discuss the appraisal, what you may or may not do, with the donator already when the archive is delivered.

They are normally not necessary from an archival point of view. However, you often want to facilitate the access by indexes, for instance to the correspondence. Normally these indexes are best kept at the end so you can keep the easy overview of the rest of the inventory.

Naturally the arrangement work and the inventory may be complemented with other systems used at your institution, i.e. cataloguing of single items.

-Electronic records
Electronic records are a bit of a special problem nowadays. It goes without saying that the records
must be readable when they arrive in the archival institution. Technical development goes very quickly and various programs easily get outdated. We are often worried that the medium to which the digital bits are glued shall get old, but in fact the risk is much bigger that the program used is too old. In order to keep the information we must continuously migrate the material on to more up-to-date technical platforms. The migrations themselves must also be recorded to certify that the content is the same.

An archive is normally called "fonds" since the term archive has several meanings.

Fonds = All the documents, regardless of form or medium, organically created and/or accumulated and used by a particular person, family or corporate body in the course of that creator's activities and functions.

Collection = An artificial accumulation of documents of any provenance brought together on the basis of some common characteristic e.g. subject.

Provenance = 1) The agency, institution, organisation or individual that created, accumulated and maintained records/archives as a result of its activities prior to their transfer to a records centre/archive. 2) In manuscript terminology, any source from which personal papers or manuscripts are acquired.

Principle of provenance = The basic principle that records/archives of the same provenance must be kept together and not mixed with those of any other provenance, ”respect des fonds”.

Principle of respect for archival structure = The principle that the methodology used for handling archives, particularly appraisal, arrangement and description, should reflect the varying forms and structure of the records/archives and functional contents.

How shall your archives be kept?

Archives are unique and shall be kept under lock and key. Do not have too many keys in circulation and protect your archives against theft.
The door to the archive should be fireproof.
Do not have a sprinkler system in your archive. Your archive must be a safe fire cell, it should not be possible for fire to spread into it. If you need to make holes through the walls they must be carefully sealed.
It must be possible to turn off all electricity with one switch.
Fluorescent light should be changed out if it starts to flash.
Do not have water pipes in your archive. If this cannot be avoided, you can put gutters under them.
Floor drains may lead to flooding and should be avoided.
Keep your archive tidy and clean, dirt attracts insects.
The climate is important and climate control may be necessary. If your collections are mixed you must try to weigh different needs together.
Figures for preservation:
Paper: ca 18 degrees Celsius, ca 35% relative humidity (RH)
Parchment: ca 50% RH
Photographs: ca 18 degrees Celsius, ca 30% RH, colourphotos and slides need -5 degrees Celsius
Microfilm: ca 12 degrees Celsius, ca 30% RH, clean air

Preparing for the worst


At the very beginning, think about the surroundings. Is your archive located in a suitable place?

Is there any risk for water coming in or flooding?

Is the house placed on solid ground? Some areas have a ground where sinkholes may appear and that must of course be avoided.

Is the floor in your archive strong enough to hold the compact shelving system? The floor must not be carpeted since that may attract insects. Put a reflective tape on the floor to guide you to the exit which shall be marked with an exit sign.

Is the door fireproof? Place your most valuable volumes near the door to make it easy to evacuate them and remember to put strings around them since the handling may be rough and you do not want the papers to fall out of their boxes.

Do not put valuable materials on the bottom shelf in case of flooding. Neither should materials be placed directly on the floor. You need to consider the question which material is of special value. Often it is the very old documents or the ones considered to be part of the national heritage. It also involves documents of administrative and legal value or documents that have a high market price or a special value for research. The list of valuable materials should be kept secret to avoid theft.

Does the door to the archive have a good lock? Do not have too many keys in circulation but keep the number down as much as possible. Be careful if you have people visiting the archive.

Are your electrical installations in a good condition? Make regular inspections in your archive. Use a special form for this and appoint a person responsible for the inspections. Turn off all electricity when leaving the archive. This is easily done if you have a switch outside the entrance.

Practice with your staff which actions should be taken in case of an emergency. Let them also help you to identify risks. Discuss incidents and refine your plan. Invite experts to lecture on various aspects of the disaster subject.


A stearing group must be appointed and everyone in the group should have a stand in. The group shall represent the various competences needed. Make a list. Such functions as contacts with the press, a photographer, a secretariat for communication and handling of a disaster budget should be included. You may need to order tents, food catering, containers, contact locksmith, various sorts of expertise, etc. quickly and without too much bureaucracy.

Make a list of the staff with names, addresses, mobile/cellphone numbers, distances in minutes to get to the archive for each. Be prepared to take care of injured or chocked persons in the disaster situation.

Make a list of external contacts and resources. Emergency numbers, owner of the building, experts on various types of materials. It is very useful to have the numbers of firms that lend wet vacuum cleaners, freezer containers, transports and other practical equipment you may need. Prepare beforehand for where to put up a temporary office if need be.


You must keep a log of all the actions that have been taken during the disaster.

The damage must be documented. What has happened? How does it look (take photos) and what materials have been damaged (documents, photographs, textiles, art, objects, recordings, microfilms)?

When the staff takes care of the materials they must have a form to record their decisions, one for each item. It shall include name of the object, type of damage (water, fire, soot, insects, theft, other), specify the damage, decision, time and signature. This helps a lot when you shall bring things into order once the acute phase is over.

Useful tools

You need to have drawings of the building.

You must put together a rather large emergency kit where you keep various practical things necessary when working under very special circumstances. Keep it near the archive. It shall contain things like the following:

Barrier tape
Bubble wrap
Cotton strips
Disaster plan
Documentation forms
Extension cord
First aid kit
Freezer bags
Garbage bags (different colours)
Gloves (cotton and plastic)
Helmet with headlight
Marking pen (waterproof)
Mask (prevents inhaling dangerous particles in the air)
Moving boxes
Packing tape
Plastic sheets
Rain poncho
Tissue (acidfree)
Tools (knife, hammer, screwdriver etc.)
Reflective vest
Water bottle


Together with this emergency kit, keep a guide on how to take care of different materials (books, documents, plastic, paintings, photographs, electronic media, textiles, leather, metal, terracotta, stone, plaster). In Sweden we have a very good site with a handbook to guide us <>. It is put up by Riksantikvarieämbetet (the Swedish National Heritage Board). Water damaged materials need to be taken care of pretty quickly, within 48 hours. If it is a big collection you must freeze it before the mold starts to affect it. Early in the process you therefore need to make strategic decisions and calculate how long it takes to pack materials and how many persons there are to do this work.

Papers damaged by fire

I would like to add a few words about the handling of papers damaged by fire when the acute phase is over. After a fire the paper is very dry and therefore brittle. Papers may be difficult to separate, you can try carefully with a metal spatula with round corners. If the papers are dirty you can try to clean them with a very soft brush made from natural hair. It is important not to put any pressure on the brittle paper. Store the papers in boxes, preferably acid free boxes, and keep the boxes lying down. Between each document place an acid free piece of paper. Pack the whole thing very loosely with lots of air. Do not use the documents for research but offer digitized copies (photos) instead. Sometimes there may be mold on the papers, look out for this and remember not to store such papers in humid climate because the mold can then grow pretty quickly. Also remember to protect the rest of your holdings from the mold; you do not want it to spread. If vacuum cleaning, use a special filter to avoid spreading around these very small particles of mold.


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