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How to handle archives when you are not an archivist

Some time ago, I visited a library that had just received a “gift” from hospital administration of two boxes of archival material to “look after”. The librarian asked me how to handle these materials. Upon returning home, I asked advice from our local archivist, Russell Johnson, UCLA’s Librarian for History and Special Collections for the Sciences. Russell’s advice was simple, cost-effective, and practical, and I want to share them with our Network members. Here is Russell’s advice:

Russell JohnsonMake a quick assessment of the collection

What kind of material is in the collection? Books, papers, photographs, objects, film? Does the material include any patient records? Does it include anything of a confidential nature? Make a simple list for your files (with another copy in the boxes) describing the contents, including who gave the material to you and when they gave it. Include their contact information and note any comments they made. You need not take a lot of time on this first assessment, but take enough time to determine if there is anything fragile or unique and to come up with a ballpark priority. Is this something that needs to be processed immediately, soon, later, or never? Maybe your simple list will suffice as a long term finding tool – if so, be sure to include a note on where you decided to put the boxes.

Get the stuff out of harm’s way

First and foremost, you need to protect the material. Are the boxes clean? Are file folders – if there are any – clean? Can you see any evidence of infestation or water damage? You don’t want to bring any infested material into your regular collection! Put the material into clean boxes and folders. You don’t need to use archival quality boxes and folders at this point – but you might want to take the condition of the material into consideration when you develop your processing priority. Most importantly, write “DO NOT DISCARD” on each box – include your name, contact information, and date.

Contact an archivist

Consider contacting an archivist for advice. Beyond this first handling of the material, management of archives is a specialty. According to the Society of American Archivists (SAA), “Archivists select, preserve, and make available historical and documentary records of enduring value. Archivists cooperate, collaborate, and respect each institution and its mission and collecting policy.” Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences (ALHHS) is a group you might find helpful. Contact one of the officers for advice on how to find an archivist in your area. Or, ask the special collections department of your local university for advice, but recognize they may not have familiarity with the health sciences materials or environment.

2 Responses to “How to handle archives when you are not an archivist”

  1. Jacque Doyle Says:

    Thanks, Julie! Our library on a relatively new campus is taking on this task and we are enjoying it immensely!

  2. Joy Graham Says:

    Very timely article. I just received 10 boxes of stuff. Contacting an archivist sounds like a very sane thing to do.