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How to preserve you family or community archive: Collection care 15: damaged items

Got a damaged item? Think you might want to have some conservation work done? Want to “know what to know” first?

Firstly, it’s best to avoid trying to mend anything yourself. Any pressure sensitive tape (such as Sellotape, or Scotch Magic Tape) will do more harm than good in the long run as it ages badly and often fails. Also depending on the adhesive, it goes yellow and powdery, or sticky round the edges or seeps into the paper turning it brown and/or transparent over time, ultimately making it brittle. It’s brilliant for wrapping presents though!
Likewise, it’s best to avoid laminating anything you value. That’s a heat activated adhesive which is going to be even worse.

Keeping a note of the condition of things is helpful. It will pick up any problems that you hadn’t noticed, and you can then do something about it, initially through better protection. Prevention is always better than cure – and cheaper! Adding the information to your list or catalogue means it is there as a reminder.

If you are looking after a sizeable collection, particularly if it belongs to an organisation or group, a survey (either a quick look at everything or a representative sample) would be good. If you are thinking about trying to find funding towards conservation work, it will help you to work out what you need – see CC#7 on getting help towards the cost. A conservator can do a condition survey for you.

Even if something is damaged, it doesn’t actually have to be repaired, and in many cases shouldn’t be. Advice from the British Library, no less, is that “something of the original is lost during treatment. This can lead to a less useful or less valuable item” (comment made in the introduction to their PDF on monitoring and management the environment, see link below).

That old look and feel of past times gives added authenticity – it may be just a feeling (what we call something’s “intangible property”), but it can easily be lost. If you have a diary or a book that belonged to someone in your family who is no longer with us, you will know the special feelings that holding it and looking at it brings.

There’s no need to make things neat and tidy or look like new again. Things don’t need to look pristine to be well cared for. If they are not brought out very often, a good protective archive box, a note about any damage and a request to handle carefully may be enough. If something is used a lot, it may be worth copying it, allowing people to use the copy (they could see it online), and keeping the original safe – after all, it is the authentic item! The main aim is to reduce the risk of further damage in the future.

There are times though, when you do want something repaired. It’s worth identifying anything in your collection that you think might be at risk of further damage and/or might need stabilising. A useful first line of defence is a protective enclosure – a box or a folder.

Conservators can also help you with other work such as a collection condition survey or item condition assessment, preventive measures like environmental improvements and pest management, mounting and framing, and safe exhibition and display.

When asking a conservator to do some work on an item, first identify what aspects you want to preserve so you can discuss your wishes with them. There are different strategies and options to be considered depending on the circumstances. Here are some questions that might help:

  • What is special about this item (or collection) that I want to preserve?
  • Does it have significance beyond its personal value to me?
  • Does it also have an historical value, such as a first edition of a rare book or a photograph recording a particular local or national event or time, or an important persons’ signature, or a document recording key decisions made or contracts entered into?
  • Does it need to be preserved for posterity?
  • Do I want to preserve everything about this item, including the old look and feel?
  • Do I want to just ensure that it is stable and preserve it as it is – maybe have a nice box made?
  • How important is it that it looks tidy and clean, or like new?
  • Do I want/need stains or dirt to be removed?
  • How strong doues it need to be when it is done – is it going to be handled by many people?
  • Do I want to display it?
  • Do I want a nice presentation box or frame?
  • What are my storage conditions like? Where will I be keeping it?
  • Is it well protected from future damage?
  • Is there anyone else I should ask, or whose opinion I need to consider?

When you have decided what you want, it’s time to find someone to do the work. We have a list of local contacts for Gloucestershire on our website, or you could look at the Institute of Conservation Register (see link below). Accredited Conservators have met the professional standards of the Institute of Conservation and work to a set of principles based on these. They are bound by a Code of Ethics and are required to keep their knowledge and practice up to date. They can use the letters ACR after their name.

Look at websites or search on names to find out more. Make contact, discuss your requirements, ask if they do this sort of work; ask to see other work and/or references.

When you do have any repair work or conservation done, it is best to keep a record of it. A conservator will provide you with a report. It is good to have (and ask for) a statement about the significance of an item, how it was made and/or what it is made from, its condition before the work is carried out, the options that were considered and the reasons for choosing a particular course of action, any materials used in the treatment or repair (so you know what adhesives or new materials have been added), and any advice you have received about caring for it afterwards. You may have to pay a bit more for a thorough report, but, particularly if your item is valuable, it is probably worth having.
If this report is kept as part of the information you have in your list or ‘catalogue’ (CM#5 for a helpful guide to listing/cataloguing), it will become part of the story for that item, and it can be easily found again.

Here are some useful links if you want to find out more:

Page updated: 17/11/2020 Page updated by: Ally McConnell

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