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Starting From Scratch: Creating Synagogue Archives | Publications

V. Preservation & Conservation

Preservation of historical records for research use is the goal and purpose of every archives. Yet, preservation and use are often contradictory goals. Use of documents is the greatest threat to their preservation. To manage and control these conflicting goals is a great challenge to the archivist.


Preservation should be the goal of every archival activity. The purpose of archives is the preservation of historical records for research use. Preservation does not have to be elaborate or costly; basic archival procedures are sufficient for most preservation needs. Preservation is done best through daily practice of sound archival techniques and simple common sense.

Some of the basics of preservation were discussed earlier in the section on storage. Archives must maintain a climate and atmosphere conducive to the storage and preservation of archival records. Storage areas should be clean and free of pollutants. Temperature and humidity should be maintained at constant levels: 70F and 55% RH. Sunlight and its damaging ultraviolet rays should be blocked by heavy blinds. Steel shelving should be used rather than wood or other materials. Storage areas should have smoke and fire detection systems with portable fire extinguishers. The storage area should be locked and secure whenever the archives is closed. Access to storage areas should be limited to staff members. Visitors or researchers should not be allowed into storage or work areas.

Proper filing and storage techniques are vital to preservation. All papers and documents should be filed in acid free (ph level 7.0) boxes and folders. Documents should fit comfortably into the boxes, never crammed, bent or folded. Boxes should be full to prevent curling, but not overfull. All boxes and folders should be fully labelled, preferably typed on self adhesive labels. Labels should list the collection's title or main entry, its contents, span dates, and location in the archives. Oversize or non-textual items should be filed separately, in cabinets or specially made boxes where they are safe from the elements. All collections must be placed on shelving safely away from the elements and overhead pipes. Boxes or individual items should never be left on tables or the floor. Most of all, original archival documents must never leave the archives. They should not be loaned or borrowed for any reason.

The archivist should maintain a locator file that lists the location of all material, both processed and unprocessed, held in the archives. A system of numbering or labelling the stack area should be developed to aid in locating the collections.


Conservation differs from preservation in emphasis. Conservation denotes an active effort to reduce or reverse the effects of use and aging on selected documents. There are many expensive and extensive conservation techniques available to archivists but most conservation techniques can be done at a minimum of cost. A few of these will be discussed here.

Rare or valuable documents, especially those that are fragile, should be removed from their collections and filed separately as a security precaution. Items having intrinsic value (i.e., those that are valuable as a document in and of itself)—such as an original constitution or charter, or a handwritten letter by a well known person—should be taken out of their collections and filed in a secure place. This will prevent deterioration of the document through handling and use, deter theft, and prevent accidental loss or damage.

When an original document is removed from a collection a xerox copy of the original should be inserted in its place. Mention of this exchange and of the new location of the original should be noted

Fragile or aging documents that do not have intrinsic value and are important only for the information they contain can be copied onto acid free paper and the original discarded. Newspapers are an excellent example of this.

NOTE: Please use caution when discarding any original documents. Be certain that the loss of the original will in no way harm or embarrass the archives or violate donor agreements. When considering disposal of any items it is a good idea to have, in writing, the permission of the donor to do so or to offer back to the donor the items targeted for disposal.

Documents can also be preserved through microfilming. There are many organizations, including the American Jewish Archives, that provide microfilming services. Microfilm is clean, compact, and long lasting. It is the most efficient and cost effective means of preserving large collections of materials. Its drawbacks are cost, difficulty in use, and purchase and maintenance of necessary equipment. Microfilming should be considered only when a large amount of material is involved. When considering microfilming for conservation please contact the American Jewish Archives for consultation and advice.

Basic conservation techniques such as straightening or cleaning can easily be performed by the archives staff. Rusty paper clips and staples should be removed from all documents. Rubber bands, strings, or metal clasps should be taken off. Dirt and dust should be wiped away. Cleaning supplies are available that will not harm the documents. Before attempting any procedure please make sure that cleaning or straightening will not harm the document in any way.

There are other specialized and sophisticated conservation techniques, such as encapsulation (sealing the document in an air tight enclosure) and deacidification (an elaborate—and costly—chemical process of removing all acidity from the document), that are available. When considering one of these options please consult first with a conservation professional or the American Jewish Archives.