Free report on storage environment (your tax dollars at work)

by Sally J.

Have you heard of the NHPRC? That’s the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. It is the only national U.S. agency dedicated solely to the preservation of historical records. No buildings. No farm implements. Just documents. NHPRC. (Pssst…they give grants.)

Back in the late 90s I worked for the Wisconsin affiliate, the Wisconsin Historical Records Advisory Board. My work on the Best Practices Project was instrumental in how I approach archiving and the role of state historical societies.

So. What the heck is a Best Practices Project, you ask? It was pretty simple, actually. Earlier surveys of records holders in Wisconsin had revealed a basic unavoidable truth:

Pound for pound, more historical documents were being cared for by non-archivists than by archivists.

Our challenge was to get as much training as possible to as many “accidental archivists” as possible, with a cost as low as possible. But first we wanted to make sure the records keepers were the ones to choose the topic — based on their immediate information needs.

We set up a task force for each of these groups:

  • public librarians
  • local historical societies
  • local governments (registers in probate)

Next, we asked each group to identify and rank their most critical information need with regard to caring for historical records. The result was three manuals of instruction, all of which you are welcome to download and share. After all, it’s your tax dollars that made the project possible in the first place.

Click the titles below to download the free PDF files:
1. Creating a Collection Development Policy for Local Historical Records in Public Libraries (PDF, 123KB)
2. Creating a Collection Development Policy for Historical Records (PDF, 120KB)
3. Everything You Wanted to Know About Storage Environment, But Were Afraid to Ask (PDF, 260KB)

Learn more about the Wisconsin Historical Records Advisory Board here.

As promised in my last post, I’m including an excerpt from the storage environment manual, which was written for Wisconsin Registers in Probate. During our meetings, I heard about county boards pressuring clerks to scan and dump the historical records in their care. It reminded me a lot of the current situation in Tuscaloosa.

Below is my advice, written almost exactly 10 years ago.



Digitization is Great for Access
At first glance, digitization and imaging look like a superior form of records storage.

  • Each copy is an exact clone of the original.
  • Availability of perfect copies keeps original from being overused.
  • Multiple users can access the same information simultaneously.
  • Records don’t need as much storage space.
  • Retrieval is fast.
  • Advanced search techniques (such as keyword searches) can be used to find information.

Digitization is Not a Long-Term Storage Solution
Digitization is a great way to increase access to recorded information, but long term storage of
digital information requires diligence and active management. Storing digital information can also be very expensive.

  • Hardware and software become obsolete about every five years.
  • Digital information has to be stored on a physical medium such as disks or tapes. Even by the most generous estimates, these materials have a lifespan of less than 50 years.

The Case of the 1960 Census
The National Archives had a difficult time accessing parts of the 1960 Census. The records were stored on tapes that the Census Bureau could read only with a tape drive that was long obsolete.

“When the computer tapes containing the raw data from the 1960 federal
census came to the attention of NARS [the National Archives and Records
Service], there were only two machines in the world capable of reading
those tapes: one in Japan and the other already deposited in the
Smithsonian as a relic.”
(Committee on the Records of Government 1985:9, 86-87)

A (Mostly) Happy Ending…
By 1979, nearly all the requested data had been successfully copied onto industry-standard
tapes. (Of the original 1.5 million, 10,000 records were not successfully recovered).

Cost of Digitization
Before you assume that scanning will save you money, remember the following costs:

  • Upgrading the hardware, software and operating system(s).
  • Conversion costs for transferring data to the new program / system.
  • Technical support.
  • Continuous training.


What has changed since 1997?
Lots more digital records, for one thing. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a perfect solution for how to preserve digital records in the long term — but the digital train has definitely left the station. Just think about how many records are born digital these days.

So, tell me…Do you think my advice is still valid a million* years later?

*That’s internet years, by the way.

Sally J. August 4, 2007 at 1:51 am

FP, are you attending ACA? Keep me posted.

French Panic August 1, 2007 at 1:41 pm

The conference theme next year for the Association of Canadian Archivists is all about digitization, etc. I’m sure there will be lots of debate on it – all of the listservs I am on are full of people yapping about it, but solutions and strategies….?

Sally J. August 1, 2007 at 12:51 pm

French, Thanks for commenting. Loved the part about backing away slowly, heh.

A big question for our profession is this: How do we get the word out that digital is not a money saver?

French July 31, 2007 at 5:31 pm

Yesssssssssss. Of course your advice is still valid. This is one of those problems that people outside of the library and archives world just cannot seem to wrap their heads around.

As the sole archivist in my office, I cannot keep up with the backlog in dealing with paper accessions, let alone the digitization projects that are barely started, and I have to check myself before laughing hysterically at the poor fools who honestly believe that scanning everything in the collection will make my job easier. When I start pointing out to them that I will need new machines, an actual staff to implement all of this, and things like a “scanner” (the archives department is deemed not worthy enough to have a scanner; I have to use someone else’s in the office whenever I receive a request for a scanned document)…. then they start to back away, as I continue to foam at the mouth and gesticulate wildly.

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