Thursday, September 15, 2016

STEAM in the Archives

Today is Power Up Your Library Day (#poweredlibraries), a day to promote science, technology, arts, and math (STEAM). Working in the archives, you are surrounded by all of these. One of the first duties of archivists is to protect the records we hold. One of the ways we do this is by monitoring the temperature and humidity to ensure there is a stable environment.

Temperature should be between 68°F and 72°F with relative humidity between 40 and 50%. Materials found in archives such as paper, parchment, leather, and wood absorb and give off water has the relative humidity changes. If the humidity and temperature are constantly changing then the materials are continually expanding and contracting. This causes damage to the fibers in the paper. This 30-second video that shows what happens with drastic changes in humidity:

In addition, keeping the relative humidity and temperate in the correct ranges prevents the formation of mold and helps keep pests away. Mold and bugs both like cool damp places.

We use acid free folders and boxes because most modern paper is acidic. The acid in the paper contributes to the deterioration of the paper. We use a special pen to test items to see if they are acidic. We may even use folders buffered with alkaline to help absorb the acid, but not with blueprints, because they are an acidic process and you would end up with blank pieces of paper.

We also use plastic that does not off gas and damage items. Off gassing, is the emission of gas from items that can cause damage to items in archives. This usually comes from “bad plastic” found in some older photo albums. The plastic emits fumes that can damage the photographs themselves. The best way to explain off gassing is, it you have ever noticed a filmy buildup of something on the inside of your car windows and no one smokes in your car, that is off gassing caused by the bad plastic in your car. Finished wood and paint can also cause off gassing.

That is a lot of science and chemistry just dealing with traditional items in the archives. Then there is math, not just counting boxes. When you build an archive or library, you need to consider how much the stuff you are going to put in weighs and build floors that can support the weight. I know of at least one library where the weight of the books was not considered in the design of the library and some of the top floors are empty because of this.

What about the digital collections and electronic files? They have to be preserved just like the paper items. Digitization does help preserve the original object by reducing wear on the object. However, then you have an electronic file that has to be preserved. You need to make sure the file is not corrupted, and that you have the software and hardware to access the file. Sometimes electronic files need to be migrated to different formats so that they can still be accessed, but still look like the original.

Then there is the technology in the collections themselves. Collections can document the history of physics, math, chemistry, video games, art, music, or anything you can think of. By looking at archival collections, you can trace the advancement of various technologies and sciences.

One of my favorite things are maps and the history of cartography. With today’s GPS and satellite technology it made be hard to realize that maps were once made using what we would consider primitive instruments or that navigation would be so difficult. It was not until a clock that could maintain accurate time while at sea on a sailing ship while at sea was invented that sailors could accurately determine their longitude. Early maps of North America often show what today is California as an island. Because of Baja California cartographers thought it was an island. The tip of Florida is often depicted on early maps as a series of small islands because cartographers were unsure about the swamps and marshes. While these maps may not be accurate by today’s standards, they show humanity’s quest for knowledge and the expansion of their horizons.

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