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Preserving Public Records
Public officials are bound by law to preserve the public records in their
care. (A.R.S. §41-1347 & 1351) Over the last ten years, the staff of
the Arizona State Archives has discovered historically significant records
in an abandoned airport hanger, a tin shed, a frequently flooded basement,
an attic, a condemned hospital and other substandard facilities. Many records
were completely destroyed by water, mold and rats, while most of the rest
required expensive conservation treatment.
Although providing a state-of-the-art storage facility can be expensive,
adequate storage conditions are relatively easy to provide and inexpensive
to maintain. Public records should be stored in an area with the following
considerations in mind.
Elected officials should insure that public records are safely stored to
prevent vandalism, theft and other unlawful acts. Although the public has
the right to use almost all public records, access should be monitored
to insure the integrity of the records.
Disaster and Accident Prevention
Some buildings have a history of water leaks, electrical shorts and similar
problems. These and other faults are a hazard to personnel and to everything
within the building. They are accidents waiting to happen, and sooner or
later they will occur. Risk management and fire officials can provide valuable
insights to a building's vulnerability to a variety of weaknesses.
Common sense plays a critical role in preventing disasters and mishaps.
- Although unsightly, using duct tape is a cheap and easy repair for leaky
windows. Shelving materials at least three inches off the floor will preclude
most water damage from broken pipes.
- Using surge suppressors instead of extension cords will prevent many
electrical fires, as will making sure that kitchen appliances and electrical
equipment are properly maintained.
- Maintaining at least three feet of clear space around electrical panels
will prevent fires in case of malfunction.
For every 9° increase in temperature, the expected life of paper decreases
by more than half. In buildings without air conditioning, interior temperatures
can easily go above 100° and literally bake the materials stored within.
Although not ideal, a temperature comparable to that in a normal office,
around 70°, will do much to insure the long term preservation of documents,
bindings and other materials.
Mold and mildew become active when the relative humidity is high, about 65%
and above. If uncontrolled, these fungi can literally destroy an entire
collection. Air conditioning removes excess moisture in the air quite efficiently,
so excessive relative humidity is seldom a problem.
Evaporative coolers, on the other hand, add moisture to a building, so records
stored within must be monitored more carefully. Stagnant air pockets are
especially susceptible to an infestation, but portable fans help maintain
Air pollution, no matter its origin, can severely damage books, papers and
photos. Air pollution usually contains many gases which combine with water
to form acids that eat everything from paper to bronze statues. By properly
maintaining air conditioning filters and regularly cleaning materials with
non-oily dust cloths, much of this type of damage can be avoided.
All light damages paper and photographs to some degree, so they should ideally
be stored in a dark or dimly lit area. Direct sunlight on valued materials
must be avoided, because it causes severe damage very quickly, as witnessed
by a newspaper that is left outside for only one day.
Natural oils on hands transfer to documents and leave permanent oily spots.
At the very least, researchers and staff should make sure their hands are
clean before using public records. Inexpensive gloves available at photo
stores will provide additional protection. If materials are to be handled
frequently, photocopies will save the originals from being inadvertently
Common cardboard boxes and file folders usually contain acids that contaminate
historical materials, so they should be avoided. Several companies provide
a wide variety of archival boxes and enclosures for all types of records,
and a modest investment will add considerably to the expected life of family
records. Such containers provide many benefits by keeping materials in
the dark, by preventing contamination by dust and pollution, and by providing
protection in case of water leaks.
For additional information, please contact the preservation staff of the
Arizona State Archives, (602) 926-3720. The Preservation Officer provides
free consultations and referrals on preservation topics and is also available
for workshops and presentations.
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