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Archival Preservation 101: Preservation Through Archival Practice

Preservation Through Archival Practice

Heidi Marshall, Head of Archives & Special Collections, Columbia College Chicago

Archival records, by their very definition, mirror their home institution. Special collections and manuscripts reflect disciplines taught, the scholarly or artistic work of faculty, staff, students, or alumni, and organizational papers collected in support of the institutional mission. Truly, archival materials separate one institution from another because of its held collections. Archival materials found within each CARLI institution showcase history, creativity, and scholarship in Illinois through the materials each retains.

However, archival collections can pose inherent and unique preservation challenges. These primary materials, largely unpublished, hold intellectual property and copyright concerns. Physical materials require temperature and relative humidity control, and preserving digital materials require local server space and duplicative copies in off-site data centers. Some institutions may question – are collecting archival materials worth it? 

The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Archivists know how to limit materials in institutional records and consider optimal numbers of manuscript collections to acquire based on institutional mission, archival collection policies, and digital and physical space. 

However, if an institution does not employ an archivist, there are a few guiding principles of which to be aware for anyone maintaining archival materials: original order and provenance. These two concepts govern archival work and preserve the integrity of the records themselves.

Original order retains the context of records, and this order tells a story. Further, original order helps preserve existing relationships the records hold to each other and to the creator of the record and contains evidential significance that can be inferred from the context of the records. When archival collections are received, the original organization and sequence of the materials should be maintained as much as possible.

The way people keep their records offers a glimpse into their organizational habits. People group records typically by subject, by event, by name, or by format, with multiple related records held within several files or boxes and contain physical material and digital files. Take for example, an institutional 50th anniversary celebration event whose files may contain material relating to all aspects of the event: from guest lists, invitations, planning documents, and institutional histories, to audiovisual materials, artwork, and items given to attendees. These collected event materials tell the story of the event through the records that are kept.  

Provenance refers to where a collection came from and who created the materials. A general principle in archives is materials should be kept according to the source, whether that source is an institutional unit, a single person, or an organization. These records were used or created by the source, the creator, while carrying out a function or an activity. Essentially, provenance states that archives of a given record creator should not be mixed with those of other creators. 

These two concepts form the principle in archival theory titled respect des fonds, which refers to maintaining records according to the origin of the material and the bodies who created them. Maintaining the original order and provenance is essential to preserving the history that has been entrusted to each institution and allows records to be available for future generations of researchers. 

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