Preservation versus Access An Archivist's View of Actions Toward a Common Goal

James F. Cartwright


In the paper, "Preservation versus Access: An Archivist's View of Actions Toward a Common Goal," I have described the dilemma between access and preservation especially as it impacts upon the decidedly different materials held in archives and manuscripts collections. I have detailed how curators of these types of collections work to preserve the materials so that they will survive to provide information through access not only to the current generation of users but to the future users as well. The paper closes with accounts of the activities at the University Archives at UH Manoa.


Preservation is a complex issue. In a democratic society, the purpose of preserving the records of our heritage is to make them available to the public, helping them become and remain informed. At the same time, however, access threatens the survival of the artifacts which record our heritage. Preservation thus becomes advocate both for openness and accessibility and for regulations and control. In the archival/manuscript area of the world of knowledge, the issue remains complex, but the nature of the artifacts involved add further complication.

If the way many librarians look at the issue of preservation versus access differs slightly from the perspective of archivists and manuscript curators, 1 one significant reason is the difference in the nature of the materials. Usually the most heavily used library resources consist of current materials. As a result, librarians will often purchase multiple copies of items they expect will receive heavy use. Moreover, if necessary, they can replace materials damaged through intense use, especially those materials still in print.

Archivists and manuscript curators, on the other hand, frequently work with unique materials. Damage to a unique item threatens the survival of the information. Certainly a photocopy or microfilm copy of the original can preserve the intellectual content of the item, and archivists frequently use these methods to preserve information for future patrons. Nevertheless, we consider documents as having two separate kinds of value. The intellectual content value consists of the value a document has independent of the information recorded on it. For example, the extrinsic value of the Constitution of the United States consists of the written information. One can find copies reproduced in almost every American history textbook written. The original on display at the National Archives contains the same information as any copy, but as the original, it has much more value than a textbook copy. if it were damaged, every American would feel that loss. While the intellectual content of a unique record can be preserved through duplication, its intrinsic value resides in the original alone. Complete replacement of a unique item is therefore impossible.


Curators must recognize the real or potential intrinsic value of items in preservation and access issues. While most library materials come to the library ready to use, curators must do extensive preparatory work before the materials are ready for patron use. They begin preservation work on collections by improving the immediate environment of the materials and by providing protection the materials will need to survive usage. The earliest steps consist of removing harmful materials from contact with the documents. Metal paper clips and staples frequently rust, and the resulting iron oxide invades the paper. Staples weaken the paper. People frequently fold pages along staple edges; the folding weakens the fibers of the paper, but the edge of the staples cuts the fibers. Without staples, people are less likely to fold papers. Curators remove the staples and metal paper clips to prevent further damage. When it is important that materials be fastened together in order to preserve an association among documents that might otherwise be lost, curators use inert plastic clips.

Some items arrive at the repository stored in a highly acidic environment. Photographs mounted in a scrapbook, paper records covered in construction paper, items reproduced by early duplicating technologies such as thermofax and items stored with clippings from newspapers, exemplify some problems archivists often find.

When possible, curators or staff remove the acidic material. Acidic paper not only self destructs at a faster pace than neutral or alkaline paper, it pollutes the neighboring materials with its acids. Staff usually photocopy news clippings onto acid free paper and dispose of the clippings. One can often remove a highly acidic report cover without damaging the unity of the materials within or losing intellectual content. Staff photocopy thermofax materials if they are in good enough condition; if the image has already faded or the background has already darkened to the point that photocopying does not work, some curators try to have the information retyped onto acid free paper.

Photographs present a special problem. If they are not fastened into the scrapbook with glue or tape, a curator may consider removing them from the scrapbook. Often, however, curators evaluate the context of the photographs as important enough to retain the scrapbook format. Whenever the photographs have been glued into the scrapbook, removing them usually damages the photographs. In such a situation, the curator may decide to leave the photographs in the scrapbook and interfile acid free tissue between leaves of the photographic album, thereby providing some absorption for a limited period of time. Since the interleaving eventually becomes acidic and no longer benefits the photographs, regular testing and replacement becomes necessary to assure the optimum environment.

As one phase of their effort, curators provide a protective, acid free storage environment for the collection. They store documents in folders and boxes constructed of acid free stock. The folders are not boards and offer much less protection than book covers. Though they are scored along the fold to allow thicker contents, the protection they provide decreases after approximately twenty pages. There is also an optimum number of folders per box sufficient folders should be stored in a box to prevent them from bending over while still permitting a person to pull a folder easily out of the box and replace it without forcing it back into the box. Document boxes have a flip top lids which protect the manuscripts from light and dust.

When collections arrive at a repository, several items often show damage. Some items may be brittle; frequently some are torn. These items need extra protection before being used by patrons; otherwise their survival time will be minimal. One principle for the nonprofessional conservator is basic: Do not do anything which is not totally reversible. For example, a curator would likely decide to encapsulate a valuable article on brittle paper. Contrary to lamination which fuses the article between two sheets of plastic with heat, encapsulation consists of storing the item between two sheets of chemically inert plastic held together by strips of tape with an acid free adhesive on both sides. By placing the tape approximately one-eighth of an inch away from the outside edges of the item, the curator protects the item itself from contact with the adhesive. If he wishes to remove the encapsulation, he merely cuts the plastic along the inside edge of the tape.

Mending torn items further illustrates the principle of reversibility. Most torn papers need mending in order to survive patron use. A curator may mend paper using an acid free, water soluble adhesive such as methyl cellulose, wheat, or rice paste and one of a variety of acid free rice papers. Since the pastes are water soluble, one can reverse the mending by applying a small amount of water. Rice paper comes in various weights, allowing a curator to select one lighter in weight than the original document. The nature of the original item would also dictate whether methyl cellulose or a starch paste should be used; the former is a wetter paste and can cockle the original or may cause ink to run. The latter sometimes requires cooking, unused portions must be refrigerated, and it can attract insects to the mended item. Humidity and temperature controls impact the survival of records. The chemical deterioration within paper increases with higher temperatures. Moreover, higher temperatures encourage insect activity and foster development of molds which can harm materials. The semitropical climate we experience in Hawaii presents us with greater challenges than most on the Mainland face.2

Preservation work of archives and manuscript curators has an intellectual aspect as well as the physical aspect. Before curators can safely make a collection of papers available to patrons, they must perform extensive work in preparing the materials. Archivists and most manuscript curators do not approach materials in the same way other librarians do. Rather than classifying materials according to subject matter, archivists follow the principle of provenance or respect des fonds,3 keeping all records created by an agency together. Within the records of an agency or even of an individual, one likely will discover organized series of records. Provenance includes respecting this internal organization as well. Thus correspondence will not be intermixed with budget documents, internal memoranda, or reports. Archivist also hold to a second principle, Registraturprinzip 4 respecting the original order within collections and series as much as possible or feasible.

These practices, however, necessitate inventories and indexes of large collections in order to locate materials on specific subjects within the collections. Both archives and manuscript collections may reach considerable size. 5 Though some item cataloging occurs, the volume of material in these collections usually dictates that the basic bibliographic unit is the series or even the whole collection. When items rarely receive individual cataloging, the inventory and/or index be comes even more important for obtaining intellectual control over a collection.

The typical finding aid in an archives repository consists of a sketch of the history of the agency or individual(s) creating the materials. A collection of the papers of the Chancellor of UH Manoa, therefore, would have a brief history of the office of chancellor, including in this case the details of the reorganization of the University system which called into being the office of chancellor and the details of the decision to abolish the office of chancellor for Manoa campus and recombine it with the presidency of the system.

A second item within a finding aid would often be a scope note of the materials in the collection and those not in it. If, for example, the correspondence for the final two years of the existence of the chancellor's office were not included within the papers, the person preparing the finding aid would note this exception to what one would normally expect. Most important, especially for large collections, the finding aid would include an inventory of the materials on the folder level. For large collections an index proves helpful to patrons as well as staff. Nevertheless, indexes take immense man hours to construct well, and a poor index is highly irritating to everyone.

Finally, cataloging a collection into the online or card catalog represents the final preservation action taken before public access. Some archives/manuscript repositories desire detailed cataloging. This seems much more feasible with an automated system since with the old typewriter-created card catalogs, the numerous cards for required so many man hours. The AMC format for USMARC provides numerous locations in the 5XX fields for specialized notes on the collection. Furthermore, AMC conventions allow for extensive use of 600, 610, 700 and 710 fields for personal and corporate entries.

After cataloging and opening the collections to patrons, archival and manuscript curators face the same challenges as other librarians. One must maintain the item good condition of the article for it to survive to provide future users the information it contains. In this regard, the curator's concerns closely equate to the concerns of other librarians of specialized collections. We frequently restrict circulation of materials and prohibit photocopying of some items. We require patrons using photographs to wear a pair of cotton gloves in order to protect the photographs from the oils on a patron's hands. These regulations help the curator maintain the materials in serviceable condition for a longer time, thus making future access to the materials possible.


At the University of Hawaii, Manoa, we have faced some interesting challenges and achieved some successes in our efforts to preserve and provide access to collections. We have made several efforts to improve the condition of the archival and manuscript collections. Staff have been involved in rehousing materials, performing those tasks which are listed as the first steps in this article but which were not done to some of our holdings. We have installed tile flooring and new shelving and have purchased dehumidifiers for one area which has provided a cleaner and drier environment. We have fumigated the materials in Sinclair Library.

About a year and a half ago, the Archives received the photographs Masao Miyamoto had taken of the University over the previous five decades. Functioning as the University photographer from 1936 until he retired in 198[?], Miyamoto created well over fifty thousand photographs of University events, places and people. In addition, he fortunately rescued some priceless early photographs which were to be thrown away when the administration moved from Hawaii Hall to Bachman Hall, including an early picture of the faculty and others of Hawaii Hall just after construction.

The collection includes famous-- or, depending upon one's point of view, infamous--visitors to campus. General MacArthur, President Eisenhower, a young Ferdinand Marcos, Sukarno and Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito appear in photographs in the collection. Our general plans include entering descriptive details and identifying number into a database which will form the basis of MARC VM catalog records. We also plan to scan images of selected photographs into the database so patrons can see at least some of the images without having the actual photograph handled. Obviously we plan to make backup copy negatives of the glass plate negatives in the collection.

Another success at UH Manoa concerns a group of related records from the social research program which has existed at the University of Hawaii for several decades. Grouped under the heading of the Romanzo Adams Social Research Laboratory, these records include valuable files of news clippings, interviews, letters and studies, dating from the 1920s through the 1960s on race relations, cultural groups, immigrants to Hawaii, crime and other aspects of the society. Various students in the School of Library and Information Studies have helped create finding aids of several series within these records. Although not yet finally revised and printed, these aids have helped us guide patrons already. When the inventories are finally printed, we will catalog the collections online and encourage further use of the materials.

One of our successes was assisting numerous scholars and reporters from various news media with the holdings of the Hawaii War Records Depository throughout the eighteen months prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This collection, which documents Hawaii as well as people from Hawaii during World War II, showed a large increase in use of both manuscript and photographic holdings. The original curators assigned numbers to the materials as they came in according to the agency donating or at times the agency creating the materials. This, though similar to archival arrangement, did not get detailed enough in the holdings of several agencies. As a result, the records of some agencies total over six linear feet, with no subdividing number for box or folder or item. We have begun to refine the numbering system employed by the original curators; though they will require considerable time to make, the refinements will greatly improve our ability to service patrons in the future.


Finally our success shows in the records which come to the Archives. As campus people hear of improvements, they consider the archives as a likely place to deposit records. So while we have not begun an aggressive campaign on campus to have agencies send their records to the University Archives, we receive materials anyway. Success costs, however. As the backlog grows, storage space needs approach the critical stage. Likewise, reference demands increase as researchers hear what materials we have and as we provide excellent reference assistance. The costs are welcome; the rewards make the efforts worthwhile.

Lest anyone reading this misunderstand, I wish to express gratitude to the many who have contributed to success in the Archives. The other librarians in the Department of Special Collections at the University of Hawaii Manoa have given immense support and encouragement while the department has funded student and paraprofessional help. The libraryadministration has been generous in providing the improved environment. Former and present SLIS students have produced quality work. University Relations has assisted with equipment and the wages for a SLIS student to process the Miyamoto photographs. Improvements at the UH Manoa Archives have clearly been a team effort.

James F. Cartwright, is University Archivist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu. Email: jimc@uhunix.bitnet


1Throughout this paper, I refer to both archivists and manuscript curators as "curators." I recognize that there are distinctions between these two groups; nevertheless, they face the same problems and approach them very similarly.

2I have facetiously said that, contrary to most areas on the Mainland where it freezes in winter, the only way a bug dies here is when you stomp on it.

3Kenneth W. Duckett, Modern Manuscripts: A Practical Manual For Their Management, Care, and Use, Nashville, Tennessee, American Association for State and Local History, 1975, pp. 119-120; and T. R. Schellenberg, The Management of Archives, Columbia University Studies in Library Services, no. 14, New York, Columbia University Press, 1965, pp. 41-44. Provenance has a different meaning for librarians and even for manuscript curators, referring to the history of a collection or item after its creation. While manuscript curators now usually maintain a person's collection intact (and thus follow the principle of provenance), they often use the term as librarians.

4Following this principle reveals the "organic activity" of the agency and can be useful for understanding the working process of the agency. However, as Theodore Schellenberg further points out, "the original order given record items contributes little to an understanding of organic activity, and an archivist should therefore preserve the order only if it is useful." Schellenberg, pp.100-101.

5One of the more common units of measure in archives and manuscript collections is the linear foot. A linear foot of papers stored on a shelf amounts to a stack of papers one foot high, placed in folders and stored in boxes on shelves.