Open Government at the National Archives

About Preservation


What is preservation?

Preservation encompasses the activities which prolong the usable life of archival records. Preservation activities are designed to minimize the physical and chemical deterioration of records and to prevent the loss of informational content. These activities include providing a stable environment for records of all media types, using safe handling and storage methods, duplicating unstable materials (e.g. nitrate film, thermofax) to a stable media, copying potentially fragile materials into a usable format (e.g. microfilming or digitization), storing records in housings made from stable materials (for example, document boxes made from "acid-free" paperboard), repairing documents to maintain their original format, establishing a pest control program and instituting a disaster recovery plan which includes plans for emergency preparedness and response.

Compiled from:

  • AIC Definitions of Conservation Terminology, Directory of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1998, p. 22
  • Bellardo, Lewis J. and Bellardo, Lynn Lady, A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers, The Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 1992, pp. 8, 26-27.
  • Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn, Preserving Archives and Manuscripts, The Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 1993, pp. 1-3.

What is preservation at the National Archives?

Preservation Programs at the National Archives consist of two major organizational units committed to the physical well being of Federal records in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration.

  1. Document Conservation Laboratory is responsible for conservation activities which contribute to the prolonged usable life of records in their original format. The Conservation Lab repairs and stabilizes textual records (un-bound papers, bound volumes, and cartographic items) and photographic images among the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration and provides custom housings for these records as needed. In addition, the Conservation staff monitors the environmental conditions in Arvhives' buildings in the Washington, DC, area; provide preservation training to Archives employees, contractors, and vendors who handle records; provide for the preservation of documents on exhibit in the Washington, DC, facilities; and, furnish technical advice and assistance to ensure the preservation of items lent for exhibition. The Research and Testing Lab, which is part of Conservation Lab, conducts a preservation science program that includes writing specifications for and providing quality assurance testing of those materials used to prolong the useful life of records (e.g., folders and boxes) and of materials that will be used in the proximity of records (e.g., storage furniture, paint, and cleaning supplies); implementing basic research into preservation issues; and, evaluating specific preservation approaches.

  2. Special Media Preservation Laboratory is responsible for reformatting and duplicating records created on textual and nontextual formats. This includes duplicating motion picture film, still photos, microfilm, and sound and video recordings; microfilming paper records; reformatting audio and video recordings in obsolete formats that cannot be used on currently-available playback equipment; and, generating digital images of records. These program activities result in the removal of fragile records from use, while still providing access to their informational content by capturing the information in a new format.

Additionally, Preservation Programs also provide preservation-related support services for all of the National Archives and Records Administration, such as: writing and reviewing preservation policies and regulations; writing, and if necessary, implementing, disaster plans for records storage facilities; administering an integrated pest management program; providing training regarding the proper implementation of preservation policies and procedures to NARA staff, other Federal agency employees, and the public; ensuring that storage environments are designed and maintained to prolong the life of records according to media type; monitoring and maintaining the condition of the Charters of Freedom encasements and vault mechanisms; and, convening and coordinating meetings of the agency's Advisory Committee on Preservation; and hosting the annual Preservation Conference.

The preservation staff at the National Archives works together with the archivists to preserve the permanently valuable records of the Federal Government. Successful preservation efforts are part of the fulfillment of the agency's mission "to ensure ready access to essential evidence . . . that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience."


What is conservation?

Conservation is one component of a preservation program. Conservation comprises the examination, documentation, and treatment of records. Conservators perform treatments which preserve records in their original format. They examine records and assess their condition and the materials which comprise them, recommend remedial treatments to arrest deterioration, recommend treatments to improve condition, and document (in writing and with photographs) the treatments they perform on records. Treatment documentation is important because it provides information to future archivists and conservators about what was done to records in the past. Some of the treatments that might be performed on a record include cleaning, removing damaging materials (e.g. mold, tape, or deteriorating adhesives), mending tears, deacidifying records at risk from acid deterioration, and providing custom housing made from stable materials. Conservation is a dynamic and developing field. Conservators perform research on materials and techniques, participate in continuing education programs, and follow the Code of Ethics of the American Institute for Conservation.

Compiled from:

  • AIC Definitions of Conservation Terminology, Directory of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1998, p. 22.
  • Bellardo, Lewis J. and Bellardo, Lynn Lady, A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers, The Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 1992.
  • Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn, Preserving Archives and Manuscripts, The Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 1993.

What kind of training do I need to become a conservator?

Conservation is an interdisciplinary profession that combines elements of science, art, and craft. Appropriate fields of study include chemistry and material science, studio and craft arts, and art history or humanities. Practical hands-on training under the supervision of an established, experienced conservator is also highly desirable. For a more detailed discussion of entering the field of conservation go to the American Institute for Conservation's (AIC) web page section on Becoming a Conservator.

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