History is crucial for understanding our roots, learning from the past and shaping a better future. Unfortunately, the invaluable materials that tell our stories are constantly under threat. From limited accessibility to physical deterioration, there are numerous challenges we face when safeguarding our history.
We’re sharing 5 ways your history is at risk, and a few ways you can take preventative actions.
1. Limited Accessibility
Physical archives, by their very nature, restrict access to the select few who can physically visit these institutions. The expense of travel, limited hours and varied viewing policies make it difficult for researchers — let alone the general public — to explore and benefit from these valuable resources.
This lack of accessibility hampers our collective ability to learn from and connect with our shared history. Digital preservation creates the opportunity to share historical materials online. If done in a thoughtful and strategic way, the keepers of history, aka anyone with history, have the opportunity to break down physical barriers and share their stories more broadly.
2. Physical Deterioration
Time takes its toll on physical materials. Paper, photographs, film reels — they’re all susceptible to degradation. Factors like humidity, temperature, light, pests, frequent handling and poor storage materials can accelerate decay. We may not see the differences overnight, but it’s happening whether we like it or not.
A simple, but impactful, step you can take is to store your materials using acid-proof folders, boxes and tissue. Standard paper is made from wood pulp. The pulp’s acidity causes the paper, and anything touching the paper, to break down. We recommend Hollinger Edge as a source for archival storage materials.
Of course there are some items that even under the best conditions deteriorate rapidly. Archivists refer to magnetic tape as being in “peak degradation.” That includes all cassettes, VHS, film, etc. Magnetic tape has an average lifespan of 10–30 years, depending on storage, number of times played, etc. You may only have one more opportunity to access the content on the tape before it quite literally disintegrates. We highly recommend reserving that last play for digital preservation.
3. Natural Disasters
Physical disasters pose one of the most immediate and devastating risks to archives. Floods, earthquakes, fires and hurricanes can wreak havoc on your collections, leading to irreparable damage or complete loss.
While more rare now, fires still pose a serious risk as they often cause extreme damage or total destruction. Floods may seem equally infrequent, but consider water events beyond natural disasters — roof leaks, intrusion in basements, burst or leaky pipes, etc. Those smaller problems can go unnoticed for months or years and cause significant damage and pose serious health risks from mold.
We have a complete archives disaster plan guide here, including resources on how to identify and deal with mold.
Memory is a complicated and nebulous concept. It is critical for understanding our past, but it’s not guaranteed.
On an individual level, memories fade for many reasons — some very cruel. Our Founder & CEO shares about her personal experience and how it inspires her work today here.
As a society, memory plays an important role in how we perceive history. In some cases, the stories that have been handed down between generations are the only way we can understand how our present circumstances came to be.
The best way to overcome this obstacle is to record stories while you can, however you can, and preserve them for future generations. Find out where historical materials have been stored and capture details about the items — names, dates, locations, meaning. Interview people who have influenced you or your community. Ask big picture questions and dig into the small details. You never know what might come out in those conversations that will inspire others.
Lack of proper organization and cataloging can lead to the loss or misplacement of historical materials. Without an efficient system in place, documents, artifacts and records can become scattered or buried in storage facilities, rendering them inaccessible or prone to damage.
We cannot tell you how many times we’ve helped our partners rediscover and gain access to priceless archival materials they didn’t know existed.
Conduct a thorough review of the possible storage locations for historical materials — closets, attics, basements, members’ or colleagues’ homes, storage sheds. Consider what you might be overlooking. Are materials on your office walls more than just decor?
Then create a record of what exists and where it’s stored. That way others can benefit from your efforts and not need to replicate them.
We highly recommend using a collections management software to maintain that record. The security and accessibility a quality CMS can provide ensures your history will be shared now and for future generations. You can learn more about the CMS HistoryIT developed at odysseypreservation.com.
Preserving our history is a responsibility we bear for future generations. Maintaining an awareness of the hurdles we face is key to overcoming them.
If you have any questions about how to preserve and protect your history, feel free to reach out. Our team is always here to help.