Expectations vs. Reality


I was recently on a job that got me thinking about expectations versus reality when it comes to undertaking a large-scale project.  A smaller museum had contacted me about help for their collection and asked me to come on for ten hours to try and assess the situation, start in on it, and then give a timeline on how long this would take to complete.  So I broke it down into five hours on one day and five hours on another day. I was very nervous about how to best use the ten hours because I was unsure on the scale of this project. When I inquired about the size of the collection, I was told 10,000 items and then later that figure jumped to 50,000 items - I nearly had a heart attack because that’s a LOT of stuff!  And the staff was very eager to get items entered into PastPerfect.

So my plan of attack was to take an inventory of every item in the collection - it’s hard to really know what you have when you don’t know what you have!  So I wanted to get an idea of what we were really working with. Then I had wanted the staff and Board to go through and decide, based on their collecting policy, what items they were keeping and which items would need to go.  Then I would be able to go back through and begin entering each item into PastPerfect.

So Day 1 rolls around, and I go in and start to tackle making an inventory list.  You guys, I.was.flying. I have never typed so fast in my life! I stopped only long enough for bathroom breaks.  I was really trying to maximize my efforts and time since I knew that this was a very small window I was working in.  After five hours of banging out item after item into an Excel sheet, I got about 150 items in. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re trying to document the item, if it has an object id., if there’s a deed of gift, if it needs to be scanned/photographed, the condition of the item, and then any other little tidbits, it takes a while!

So when Day 2 arrives, I show up and there is a flatbed scanner waiting on me.  Again, they really wanted items in PastPerfect, like, yesterday!  However I was determined to keep working on the inventory list as I felt it was important to get a good grasp on what we were looking at as a whole and then go from there.  Thankfully, the cords to connect the scanner to the computer could not be located, so I was spared from having to fight that battle. I continued with the inventory and again, was typing like someone possessed, trying to get as much done in my remaining five hours as possible.  I was able to plow through about 170 more items. Unfortunately, even after my insane typing spree and successfully cataloging a little over 300 items, it was barely a dent in the overall project.  

After returning home, I wrote a final report as I always do, to summarize what we had talked about the project encompassing, what I was able to do, and my guidelines for continuing with the overhaul they were wanting.  I suggested a timeline of six months but noted that that is dependent solely on how many hours per week are dedicated to working on this project. 

I felt confident in my approach and the steps taken to get the project underway, however I can’t help but think that the staff who hired me may be disappointed in the progress made.  While I know that most archival jobs are going to take a fair amount of time and steps, others not normally exposed to these types of undertakings may expect a faster turn around. I tried to express the need to follow steps X, Y, and Z for this project and had even laid out a projected timeline in my initial proposal.  

So, this brings me to my real conundrum:  when starting on archival projects, is it better to follow what you know and execute steps according to that knowledge or is it better to bend to what staff or Board may want, despite your best efforts?  For this, I decided to stay the course and go with what I know. I guess if push came to shove, I would’ve had to really fight my battle or change course. It’s hard when you are the expert brought in to handle a task, but then the person that has hired you has different ideas of workflow and process.  Just stay the course and be confident in your knowledge and the work that you are doing!

The Air We Breath...

Bookshelf Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The trend for the last few years has been for consumers to move towards more natural and non-toxic products: plastics especially are now Undesirable No. 1.  However, all sorts of things can off gas: furniture, carpet, mattresses...you know that new car smell everyone always loves? That’s actually from materials in the vehicle off gassing.  

So, you may or may not have heard of off gassing.  I know that even when the no-plastics movement started, I still hadn’t really heard much about off gassing specifically. Off gassing is defined most simply as: to give off a chemical, especially a harmful one, in the form of a gas.  Those smells you smell in a new car or from a piece of furniture are actually the product releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.

The first time I ever heard that term used was about archives, not plastics.  The Society of American Archivists uses the term outgassing and define this as: the release of material in the form of a vapor as a result of deterioration.  So, when items start to deteriorate, they give off a gas. Usually it is pretty obvious which items may be off gassing as they have a smell. The thing that I always think of immediately is blueprints.  There’s a flat file of blueprints that I’ve had to go through in search of something, and the whole file just reeks of vinegar! It’s the paper that is starting to break down. Blueprint paper is treated with ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide, so it’s not like regular paper is starting to decompose; it is the compounds on the paper.  The prints have given the entire archives area a certain vinegar smell to it. Typically, when you get that vinegar smell, most people will attribute it to cellulose acetate plastic in film. They even call it vinegar syndrome.

There are also concerns when it comes to the furnishings in a repository.  I once had someone asking me about some bookcases that had been donated to them and if they would be ok to use.  Upon inspection, the bookcases were made of MDF/particleboard. Don’t get me wrong, I know the budgeting constraints on most organizations, and beggars can’t be choosers, so by all means use the free bookcases!  But it’s important to note that some materials, (MDF and particleboard are notorious) contain toxic elements like formaldehyde that can be harmful. During graduate school, I worked at a law firm that handled different personal injury cases, and one branch of the firm had taken to looking into a particular big box flooring supplier as their products were allegedly off gassing toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, at insane levels.  If you read my previous post, you’ll recall that after I had been asked about building suggestions for a new facility, part of my recommendation was to not use certain varnishes, flooring products, paints, etc. as they can give off toxic vapors. While the main concern is obviously staff and visitors that you don’t want exposed to potential VOCs floating around, you also don’t want your artifacts submitted to random chemicals that may be in the air.  

There are different tests that you can do to test the indoor air quality of a facility to see just how bad things are.  Home Air Check is one of the first ones that comes up if you do a Google search (this post is not affiliated or sponsored by Home Air Check), and there are others out there as well.  If you discover that you are working with less than stellar air quality, you can try an air purifier with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. This will work to filter out unseen nastiness that may be floating around.  But one of the simplest things you can do is to work to control temperature and humidity. Not only does low temperature and stable humidity lead to prolonged life of archival records, they can also help keep things from off gassing as rapidly.  

Sources for this post







From the Ground up...

jesse-orrico-62699-unsplash Feb 2019 blog post.jpg

I was trying to think of what to write about for February when I got an email from a local utilities company asking to meet to discuss an historic landmark that we partner on to help maintain.  Since we’ve been in partnership on this project for years, I didn’t think much of it and assumed it was about maintenance or something we needed to take care of for the upcoming year. However, when we finally sat down to meet, I was woefully unprepared for the purpose of the meeting; the first question I was asked was: “So...if I wanted to build a museum, what would I need?”

Now, I have a pretty good handle on general guidelines for existing facilities but building a museum from the ground up is a bit of a bigger project, so I sort of sat there like a deer in headlights, I tried my best to blunder my way through, and offered up a suggestion of 10,000 square feet, and ADA accessibility ramps, and public space, and all sorts of random things that I feel like were not very helpful.  As our meeting wound down, I asked if I could mull this over and send some more concrete ideas once I’d had some more time to wrap my head around this idea and do a little research. So that is precisely what I did. Although, it was difficult because all I had to work with was, “we are looking at maybe building a museum”.  Without knowing more definite plans for the space, I basically was just blindly coming up with a concept with the hope I was going in the right direction.  

    For this project, Thomas Wilsted’s book Planning New & Remodeled Archival Facilities proved invaluable.  Again, I have decent knowledge about certain aspects of a museum facility and what is needed, but things like concrete footings and placement of support columns....not so much.  But the main things I tried to focus on were temperature and humidity control and disaster preparedness. My thought was that if you build a space to minimize the risk of water and fire damage while still being able to keep humidity and temperature stable, you can handle just about anything else.  So after some thinking and research, the following is what I came up with.

    For the building itself and its exterior, the structure needs to be well insulated in order to help with temperature and humidity control on the inside.  Many European facility planners suggest using multiple layers of stone and/or brick with air pockets and insulation in between to help the building maintain a steady internal temperature; and if the Europeans recommend something, I typically will also because it is my experience that European and Australian policies are ahead of the U.S.  As for the roof, a pitched roof is a must! Flat roofs tend to weaken quicker as water collects in certain spots which can lead to leaks. Proper guttering systems are also mandatory to ensure that water is taken away from the building and not pooling somewhere and causing damage. Also, try to keep any HVAC equipment off of roofs. Air and heating machinery have the potential to leak.  Also, any workers that have to come service the HVAC will be stomping around on the roof and also pose a security risk. Keep HVAC and other mechanical equipment in a separate area like a mechanical room as this is usually your greatest fire risk. Landscaping also needs to be taken into consideration to make sure that invasive roots won’t cause damage to the foundation, and that water won’t collect around doors and foundations also.  

    Now for the interior of the building.  First off, square and rectangular spaces are much more efficient and easier to work with in terms of galleries, archival storage spaces, research areas, etc., so I’d save curved walls and grand spiraling staircases for areas like the lobby.  If you will need structural elements like columns to help support roofs or upper stories, make sure to communicate this clearly to the architect so that they can be placed so as not to hinder traffic flow or block exhibit space. Floors need to be able to support anywhere from 50 to 150 (sometimes even as much as 200) pounds per square foot - archival stacks and museum artifacts can be heavy!  Also communicate to the builders that any bathroom or kitchen areas need to be placed as far away from collections storage as possible to minimize risk of water damage from leaks or a burst pipe. If it’s possible, leave ceilings open so that fire sprinkler pipes, wiring, and other mechanical elements are easily accessible in case of malfunction. Painting these components white can help to camouflage and give a feeling of openness.  Glass can also be useful in making a space feel more open and let in more natural light, however, do not put glass walls or windows in exhibit areas or in collections storage areas. Not only do windows allow for leaks, but the UV light that comes in is highly damaging to artifacts. Any windows or glass should be UV-coated and any interior light fixtures should be equipped with UV filters and/or LED lights to help mitigate damage from light exposure.  Interior doors should also be double airlock if possible to help with temperature and humidity control. Similarly, try to minimize the number of exterior doors, I know that with fire codes there have to be a certain number of exits, but try to keep these minimal as they pose a security risk of people being able to come and go without detection.

    Also something to consider is the materials used in the building.  Certain materials can off-gas and/or deteriorate and release harmful chemicals into the environment and can be toxic to people and artifacts.  Polyurethane paints and varnishes, oil-based paints, acid-curing silicone sealants and adhesives, vinyl, any material containing formaldehyde (i.e. particle board), cellulose nitrate adhesives and lacquers, materials that contain sulfur, and unstable chlorine polymers like PVC are all materials that should be avoided whenever possible during new construction or remodels.  

    Lastly, it’s good to think about public versus non-public spaces that you will want in your facility.  Public spaces include areas like the lobby, exhibit areas, research/reading room, meeting rooms, auditorium, bathrooms, etc.  Non-public spaces would be things like staff offices and kitchen, conference room, server and mechanical rooms, and collections storage.  Exhibit space is usually best if situated immediately off the lobby area. An aspect to consider here is having built-in display cases or if it will be better bringing in freestanding cases.  If your facility will be hanging framed pieces regularly, installing a picture rail or other hanging system may make this easier and minimize damage to walls otherwise.

    So, there it is!  I also came up with a rough (very rough) layout of a vision I had for the space.  Again, I am not an architect or engineer and I’m sure my rendering is laughable, but I mainly wanted to get some quick ideas on paper to try and help get the ball rolling.  The space that is proposed for this museum is small and the initial content that is to be housed here is also small, so that’s how I came up with a one-story, 10,000 square foot building that I hope would be able to condense a lot of history and artifacts into that space and have a big impact on visitors.  


Wilsted, Thomas.  Planning New and Remodeled Archival Facilities.  Society of American Archivists, 2008.

New Year and New Projects!

Box of photos

You guys, what a whirlwind 2018 was!  The last couple of months of the year were especially hectic for me with Thanksgiving, special event scheduling at work, Christmas with families (including travel), and to top it all off, I got sick right as my time off for the holidays began and this bug is still hanging around!  Needless to say, getting back on track for the start of 2019 hasn’t been the easiest.

But here we are, at the start of a brand new year!  A time full of fresh starts, exciting possibilities, and resolutions for the best year yet.  I know many have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions: do I make them? Not make them?  Aim high or take smaller steps to new things? One of the most often heard resolutions is to get organized, so I thought, “what better topic to kick off 2019 than about trying to organize your archival items!”  And normally when I talk with people, their “archival items” are family photos, documents, and various heirloom artifacts (clothing, jewelry, etc.), so that’s what we’ll focus on in this post.

Ok, so let’s get started!

A good first step is to decide what you really want to accomplish from getting yourself organized.  Are you working on a bigger project that would benefit from having everything sorted? Do you just want to not have sentimental things haphazardly thrown into a box?  Is this an inherited collection of items that is in no particular order? Is there a big family reunion or anniversary coming up? Once you have a clear idea on why you’re trying to get everything in order, it will help you stay focused on the end product.

Alright, you’ve [hopefully] come to a clearer conclusion about why, now let’s get to the how.  

First, you want to try and get an idea of what you’re working with.  Do an inventory of the items in your collection; does it contain photos, scrapbooks, slides, papers, clothes?  All of the above? Once you have a list of what you’re working with, it is usually easier to get a handle on how much you’ve really got and how long it may take to get this process completed.

Next, you need to decide what to keep and what to toss.  This can be a hard process if it’s a family collection with a lot of sentimental value and you may very well end up keeping everything; this is your project!  But it’s also important to remain realistic and keep your end goal in mind.  I mean, is there any real value to a grocery store receipt that your great-great grandma wrote the phone message “call Bob” on the back?  Probably not. But no need to turn into some heartless, collection-clearing robot, just be judicious. One of the most reassuring things I ever heard during graduate school was, “no one is going to die because of a collections decision you made”.  And if you’re in doubt about a particular item, start a separate stack and return to it at a later time.  Sometimes if you walk away for a bit and then come back to it, you’ll look at it in a totally different way.  

Once you have sorted through everything and decided what you are going to keep, it’s time to put everything back in a nice, neat, archival-friendly way.  Companies like Gaylord Archival, Hollinger Metal Edge, and Print File all sell archival quality products that will help ensure the longevity of your family’s history.  Yes, I know you can buy file folders at Staples that claim to be “acid-free”, but there are concerns about the validity of those claims as most big box stores do not carry truly acid-free items.  

So, re-sleeve photos, folder important documents, and then figure out a logical order sequence.  Personally, I am a fan of chronological order, but you can choose alphabetical, or whatever works best for you and the purpose of your collection.   A word of caution here though: there is an archival principle called “original order”, this is the order that records were created in and in most cases, this should be maintained if at all possible; it helps give context and meaning to the collection.  However, like I mentioned earlier, a lot of folks I talk to are asking about their own personal items and I’ve found that original order is not present or was lost long ago. Inevitably, things have been sort of thrown together, or things have been taken out of their original order by someone and then not put back in the proper place, or things have been misplaced and just gone wonky.  So, it might be a good idea to sort of gauge the state of things before really diving in.

And as with most resolutions, they can start off strong but then fizzle out, so keep your end goal in mind and be realistic about the timeline you’re working with to get this project done.  I find judging the time needed to complete a project so tricky, and not just because I am bad at math!  You think that you will be able to devote more time than may be accurate or there are more items than you realized or sometimes life just gets in the way!  I hope this crash course in archival organization provided some good basic tips to get you started on your journey to an organized 2019. Just stay focused, do what you can, and before you know it, you will have a perfectly organized collection of family heirlooms to treasure!  

October is National Archives Month!

Image courtesy of Society of American Archivists

Image courtesy of Society of American Archivists

October is National Archives Month.  That means an entire month dedicated to emphasizing the importance of archives and the work that archivists do! 

            One of the questions I get asked most when I tell people what I do is: what do archivists do?  Archivists do a lot of things, but put simply – archivists maintain material for future use.  Most people assume that archivists mainly work in libraries or museums and work with historical photos and documents.  And while that is certainly the case for a lot of archivists, it is not the only career path.  There are corporate archivists, who maintain financial and business records for companies.  There are also digital archivists who work to preserve the ever-changing products of the digital age that we live in today.  There can also be film archivists whose main task is to preserve moving image reels.  Regardless of what field an archivist is in, the objective is still the same: make this material available and preserve it for the future.

            And this material that archivists work to preserve in their repository can often connect to other archives or larger collections.  For example, genealogists often use archival records to help trace their family history.  So if someone finds a marriage certificate during their research, the application for that license is likely on file with the local government.  Archival records can be a lot like footnotes in reading; they can open up unexpected sources of new information that you may not have even considered!

            Archives can also serve as a collective memory for a group or organization.  Women’s archives, LGBT archives, and Native American archives are just a few examples of specialized repositories that hold records pertaining to a certain group.  The information found in the records retained by these archives serves as a powerful source of history and information for current and future citizens. 

            For government records, the retention of information provides transparency and accountability.  Perhaps the largest sector, government archives contain some of the most important records.  Deeds, maps, and correspondence are archived and can give insight into the inner workings of office and to even help solve legal debates and show paths taken to overcome obstacles. 

            Unfortunately, many archives are underused and underfunded.  Many repositories rely on government grants and private donations to operate.  Also, when budget cuts come up, archives are usually one of the first areas hit by the decrease in funding.  

The goal for both the archival profession and the organization is the same: to preserve content with historical value for upcoming generations.  Many called into the archival field have a passion to protect the unwritten history that does not show up in history books or classrooms.  They want to give a voice to those that might otherwise be forgotten, so that others may know a more complete chronicle of the past.  Theirs is a past that directly and indirectly bonds us all together, both as a people and collectively as the human race.  This mission rings true with many archivists in practice today.  Without the vital institute of archival repositories, many stories would be forever lost.  Hopefully through outreach, funding, and determination archives will become a more present entity in society and not fall by the wayside. The history of today is the greatest legacy we can pass on to those that will follow.