Libraries, archives, museums, and other collecting institutions around the country are taking a week (April 23-29) to promote resources and activities they hope will inspire individuals, communities, and institutions to better preserve their cultural heritage. Sponsored by the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services, a division of the American Libraries Association, Preservation Week’s goal is to engage the public by presenting information and resources about preservation projects and methods that can also be used by them.
Professionals at collecting institutions take many steps to ensure the materials in their charge are being preserved as well as possible. Taking care of items like documents and photographs now will allow future generations to have the same access. When items are not properly preserved, they can become irreparably damaged and the information contained within them lost forever.
Every week is Preservation Week here in the Missouri Valley Special Collections department, but we wanted to take this opportunity to shine some light on what we do to take care of our region’s rich history, how you can preserve your own history, and why it’s important. Shall we?
Behind the Scenes: Preserving our Special Collections
A few tools of the trade
If you’ve conducted research in the Missouri Valley Room, you may have been handed a pair of cotton gloves to handle original photographs. Or perhaps you were given a book cradle to support a century-old volume. It may seem strange, but when you follow these simple procedures, you’re taking part in preserving Kansas City history!
Before these items get into your hands, our archivists work behind the scenes to make sure they’re in the best condition possible. Most of our special collections are acquired through the generous donations of organizations and individuals, and their condition can vary. Some initial preservation work – such as rehousing the collection into archival-quality boxes – is often done immediately to stabilize the collection until it can be processed.
Processing, which is the archival equivalent to cataloging, involves the arrangement and description of a collection to make it usable for researchers. As we are processing collections, we are also doing basic preservation work.
Our day-to-day preservation tasks include:
- Rehousing collections into acid-free folders and boxes.
- Placing photographs and fragile documents into sleeves.
- Humidifying and flattening items.
- Creating custom book boxes.
- Removing rust-causing metal (i.e. staples and paper clips) from documents.
- Gentle cleaning with archival sponges.
- Storing collections in a cool, dark, and stable environment.
Preserving the Kansas City Stockyards Collection
With over 6,000 items, the Kansas City Stockyards Collection required more preservation work than any of our previous collections. We created hundreds of custom sleeves to protect fragile items, rolled large maps onto acid-free tubes, and humidified and flattened tightly coiled documents. Want to know more about processing the Stockyards Collection? Read the full story here.
How Can I Preserve My Stuff?
Wondering what to do with that box of photographs sitting in your basement? Want to make sure your grandparents’ letters can be passed down to your grandchildren? And what should you do with all those old home movies on VHS tapes? Here are some basic preservation ideas that might help:
- Keep important items in a cool, dry, and dark environment. Excessive heat, moisture, and light are the most common threats to photos, documents, film, artwork, textiles, and other artifacts. Avoid storing items in the attic or basement if possible, and instead choose a closet on the main floor of your home.
- Gently handle items with clean hands in a clean environment. Keep the coffee mug away from the family heirlooms. And be sure to handle photos on their edges to avoid touching the image.
Tape might seem like a good way to make a quick repair, but it will damage materials over time. This stain was caused by tape applied to the opposite side of the paper.
The adhesive and plastic used in “magnetic” scrapbook pages quickly damage the materials placed inside them. This scrapbook is only about 15 years old, but the pages are already discolored, a sign of deterioration.
- If it’s something you want to keep for many years, avoid using tape, glue, rubber cement, self-stick “magnetic” scrapbook pages, lamination, and metal fasteners like staples, paper clips, brads, etc.
- Get organized. Label those photos, sort old letters, back up digital photos and electronic records, and/or write down favorite family stories and memories before they’re forgotten and lost.
Isn’t this a lovely wedding photo? If only we knew who these people are – there are no names listed on the back!
More Than Just Paper: Historic Preservation
Preservation efforts can extend far beyond the confines of an archive, library, museum, or your home. They also include saving old buildings from being demolished and assisting in restoring and renovating historically significant structures – an effort referred to as historic preservation.
A small part of the City of Tomorrow exhibit
Historic preservation groups, like Kansas City’s Historic Preservation Commission and Historic Kansas City Foundation, seem rather commonplace today, but this was not always the case. Such organizations were largely a byproduct of the urban renewal period of postwar America, a topic that is covered in our exhibit City of Tomorrow: Kansas City’s Postwar Urban Renewal, on display on the fifth floor of the Central Library. Beginning in the 1950s, politicians, real estate developers, and construction interests began clamoring for federal funds to help clean up American cities. Many of Kansas City’s historic buildings and neighborhoods were reduced to rubble in the name of progress.
Thankfully, by the 1960s, some lessons about the costs of urban renewal had been learned. In 1966, the National Trust for Historic Preservation published With Heritage so Rich, a collection of essays authored by notable historians, architects, urban planners, and other public figures. It outlined the case for protecting our shared historic sites and buildings. The National Historic Preservation Act was signed into law later that year, creating the National Register of Historic Places and legal protections meant to slow the destruction of the nation’s built historic legacy.
Over the years, those tired of seeing the history of their communities given over to the wrecking ball responded by organizing a slew of groups representing the interests of ordinary citizens. Kansas City’s Neighborhoods & Housing Services Department maintains a list of such organizations.
For more information on preservation efforts and techniques you can use at home, visit the Preservation Week website. You can also visit the Central Library’s Missouri Valley Room in person or online to learn more about Kansas City neighborhoods, our area’s history, and the organizations established to help protect them.
By Kate Hill, Kara Evans, Joanna Marsh, and Michael Wells - Missouri Valley Special Collections staff