There are many easy ways to help preserve the archives of individuals or organisations - papers, parchment documents, photographs, maps and volumes - without being an expert or spending a lot of money on archival quality materials
Digital archives can be either born-digital, created electronically on a computer or digital camera, such as text, spreadsheets, databases or digital photographs. They can also be digital copies of items, such as scans of older photographs or posters; these are known as digital surrogates. It is harder to preserve digital material than paper and parchment.
In order to preserve digital material, we suggest that it is created or preserved in a suitable format. It is best to be aware of these formats before you start. Our guidelines will help you choose an appropriate format.
Our Digital Preservation Policy describes our approach to digital archives.
Cinefilms, video and sound recordings are mostly made of quite fragile polymers (plastics) and, as such, have only a finite life. Some will take longer than others to decay and this usually depends upon how well they are looked after. Keeping such materials in good condition needs particularly careful handling and storage. Master material should not be used for research or display and stored separately from copies. Old, non-maintained equipment can severely damage items.
Store film and sound recordings in their proper containers in dark, cold, constant, and (not too) dry conditions. Store away from pipes, heaters and radiators, sinks, windows, electrical appliances and concrete floors. Excessive temperatures, humidity and dirt can destroy films and sound recordings, as can fire, flood and contamination from insects and rodents.
Reasonable temperatures for long term storage lie in the range 10-16°C (50-60°F) within a low relative humidity of 50-55%. Official recommendations for archival storage are more stringent and depend upon the type and format of material concerned: most colour films will eventually fade unless kept below 2°C, for example.
Tapes which 'squeal' or stick when replayed - they may be affected by 'sticky tape syndrome', where the binder between the magnetic coating and base has been affected by damp and migrated to the tape surface. It may be chemically deteriorating and require specialist conservation treatment before copying.
Light - the ultraviolet end of the spectrum can cause breakdown in polymers, so film and sound recordings must be protected from it in storage.
Pollutants like dirt, dust, fingermarks and atmospheric pollution. These can be reduced by clean storage, careful handling, good packaging (but not totally sealed), no smoking, eating or drinking nearby, and using clean equipment.
Shedding tape coatings - often shows as missing signals when playing tapes (called 'drop out' on video tapes), or a build up of oxide on tape heads and guide rollers, and may be caused by the tape itself or the replay equipment. Some tapes have been affected after just a few years from manufacture, so this is not always due to old age.
Shrinkage - a sign of old age, but not the only one: central heating can dry out film and sound recordings, for example, also causing other problems like warping, cracked surfaces on discs and splices which come undone. Careful repairs and conservation treatment are needed and affected items should not be replayed or projected, because of the damage that may result.
CDs & DVDs - the recordable variety are particularly vulnerable to pollutants and light, even adhesive labels and pen marks, in the long term. To keep the contents for archival purposes, use discs with a gold metal reflective layer, store on end not flat, and use 'jewel cases' or special conservation grade envelopes. Best conditions: 18°C at 40% relative humidity.
Cinefilm on a cellulose nitrate base - 35mm film made before 1952 - is unstable and highly flammable and particularly dangerous when decaying, especially in the final powdery state. In extreme cases it can self-ignite, and burns with a very fierce flame, giving off highly toxic gases. It should not be stored in a private house, museum or library, but duplicated onto safety-base film and the nitrate original lodged in a specialist store, disposed of by a licensed firm or taken to the 'hazardous household waste' container at certain managed waste facilities (tips).
Other cinefilms are on safety bases and stable unless damp conditions trigger mould or acetic acid decay. The latter is better known as 'vinegar syndrome', because of its distinctive smell, and affects films on acetate safety bases but not polyester. The gases given off are hazardous to health and can 'infect' other films and tapes in the vicinity.
Mould will readily grow on film and sound recordings, attacking emulsions, tape binders, plastic reels and cassette housings, gramophone discs and wax cylinders; wear gloves and dust mask when handling. The growth looks like dull spots and is encouraged by enclosures like plastic bags and sealed containers, which do not allow the plastics to 'breathe'. If caught early, specialist conservation treatment can help correct this problem, but copies need to be made as soon as possible thereafter.
These specialist companies will supply a wide range of materials including acid-free boxes and tissue paper.
Conservation by Design Limited
Timecare Works, 5 Singer Way
Woburn Road Industrial Estate
Kempston, Bedford MK42 7AW
Conservation Resources (U.K.), Limited
Unit 2, Ashville Way, off Watlington Road
Cowley, Oxford OX4 6TU
Preservation Equipment Limited
Shelfanger, Diss, Norfolk IP22 2DG
Howlett Way, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 1HZ
G Ryder and Co Ltd
Denbigh Road, Bletchley, Milton Keynes MK1 1DG