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Starting From Scratch: Creating Synagogue Archives | Publications

III. Physical Facilities & Supplies

Most congregational archives will not have a specially built storage facility. Most will have to make do with a spare room, or a portion of a spare room. In this case the archivist must be adaptive, making the best of what is available. Any archival facility should have three components:

  • a storage area
  • a work area
  • a research area where patrons can examine the archives' holdings.

In addition, office and other archival supplies must be obtained. This section will give a broad overview of the physical needs and furnishings required for storage, work and research areas as well as a brief description of some necessary supplies and names of suppliers. A detailed discussion of access rules and security policy is included in the section on Access, Reference and Security.

Storage Area

The storage area should have room to house all of the archives' holdings, in their differing formats, with room for future growth. If possible, the storage area should be close to the research area for ease of transfer of boxes and cartons, but, for security reasons, kept separate and locked at all times. The storage area should be clean and dry, preferably with no outside walls or windows, or overhanging pipes. If the storage area has windows they should be covered with heavy blinds to keep out sunlight and its damaging ultraviolet rays.

Sturdy, professional quality, steel shelving should be installed. Wood or painted shelves should be avoided; the resins and toxins of wood and paint can be harmful to the documents. Shelving should be kept at least eighteen inches from walls. There should be sufficient aisle space for easy access, preferably a minimum of thirty inches in width. Locked and fireproof steel filing cabinets can also be used for storage. Cabinets require less floor space than shelving and, if sturdy, are durable and secure. Drawbacks include increased difficulty in access to the documents and higher risk of damage from pulling and replacing files. Cabinets are also much more expensive means of storage, per cubic foot, than shelving. This can be significant if you have large holdings or anticipate future growth.

Light fixtures should be of all-metal construction, not more than nine inches wide, with thermally protected ballasts. All records should be kept a minimum of twelve inches from light fixtures.7

The storage area should have fire detection and extinguishing equipment. Detection systems should respond to smoke and heat. Preferred detection systems should include an audible alarm that sounds within the building and automatically connects to the local fire department when activated.

A portable fire extinguisher should be on site. Dry chemical extinguishers are not recommended; they leave a powdery residue that may be harmful to the documents. Preferred is the Halon 1301 multipurpose A:B:C extinguisher. It can be used on any type of fire, does not leave behind any residue, and does not require cleanup.8

The storage area should be well ventilated with controlled heat and cooling systems. Temperature and humidity should be kept constant at 70F and 55% relative humidity. Fluctuations in heat or humidity are very damaging to all forms of records and documents.

Access to the storage area should be limited to staff and authorized personnel. Researchers, visitors and unauthorized personnel should never be allowed into the storage area.

Work Area

The work area is where the archives' staff processes collections, answers inquiries, and performs daily administrative functions. At a minimum it should include a desk and telephone, with easy access to the storage and research areas. If necessary, the work area can be combined with the storage or research areas. Ideally, the work area should have room for sorting and processing large collections, miscellaneous equipment, and a staging area for boxes and cartons. Unfortunately, however, most congregational archives will have to make do with small spaces and tight quarters.

Some archival manuals suggest a 60/40 space ratio of stacks to administrative facilities.9 The work area, no matter its size or location, should be off limits to researchers and visitors and tightly secured when the archives is closed

Research Area

The research area is the only area where visitors may view the holdings of the archives. There should be a table and chairs with sufficient lighting. A staff member should be posted in the research area as a monitor at all times. Visitor access to other parts of the archives as well as the rest of the building should be carefully controlled. Researchers should never be allowed to enter the stack area to retrieve, or refile, materials for themselves. A staff member should bring all materials to the research area.

Food, drinks and smoking should be prohibited at all times in the research area. Noise and visitor access should be kept to a minimum. Researcher entry and egress should be constantly monitored and supervised. Rules should be made concerning the number of documents or boxes a researcher may view at one time.


Any archives will require standard office supplies, plus archival supplies such as boxes, folders, and labels. A durable library cart is a necessity. Researcher demands may require duplicating services such as a xerox machine. If your holdings include microfilm a microfilm reader or reader-printer may be needed.

There are many companies that specialize in archival supplies. Most companies provide free catalogs of their products. Two of the best known vendors of archival supplies are the Hollinger Corporation and University Products, Inc. The appendix at the end lists addresses and telephone numbers of these vendors.

Archival supplies can be expensive. For the proper care and life of the documents, however, it is important that archival-quality products be used. Using and storing documents in non-archival containers and folders will quicken the deterioration of the documents.

More information on archival supplies, especially as they relate to the storage of documents, can be found in the section on Preservation and Conservation.