Come with me on a journey… to the Preservation room

Whenever anyone comes on a tour of QSA, they usually say that the Preservation Lab was their favourite part… and I can totally understand why. So, what happens in the Preservation Lab and why it is so awesome?

Well, did you know that the condition of the records we get here at QSA can tell us a story that is much more than just what is written on them? They tell us about good and bad storage, how well (or not well) they were handled, incidents that may have happened, and any disasters and misadventures they may have had.

We can tell all this as all the not so good things that happen manifest as damage… and sometimes need specialist conservation work to fix.

The Preservation team are the experts at deciphering what’s happened to a record using their knowledge of materials chemistry. They’re also the ones that look after all things preserving, repairing, conserving and maintaining the records here at QSA.

All of us at one stage or another will have damaged records in their custody… yes even us. Sometimes damage is (mostly) unavoidable (storms, floods, fire, accidents etc.), other times it is because of poor handling, environmental and storage conditions, or just the materials used (also sometimes unavoidable) and normal deterioration.

Sometimes these records are worth salvaging because they have significant value to the State, other times when their value is balanced against the type of damage, and the money and effort to do so, it isn’t worth it to try and salvage them. This is always a case by case basis, and you should never write off a damaged record just because it’s damaged. You never know what you can salvage.

Let’s have a look at the types of damage we see and what we do to fix it…

Paper jigsaws

Something we see a lot of is dry and fragile paper, usually from agencies out west where the weather is rather less humid than in the tropics or along the coast.

This might be good for drying your washing, but not so good for paper… just like your washing all the moisture gets pulled out leaving the paper desiccated and fragile.

To look at, a lot of this paper will look fine – nice and solid, still intact, the writing is legible – until you touch it. Pick it up, turn a page, or bend it in any way and suddenly you may crumble and crack leaving you with a bunch of confetti.

Picture of fragile register and small pieces of pages in a box

Unsalvageable right? Not quite. There are long and complicated ways of piecing these pages back together for future use, but sometimes the repairs we make aren’t permanent.

Instead, where we can, we undertake the long and fiddly job of the paper jigsaw puzzle. This involves gathering all the pieces of the page (or pages) and putting them back into place. Once we’ve done that, we take a digital photo or scan of it so we have a digital copy of the record for future access.

There are a couple of problems with this though. The first is that we don’t have a jigsaw box lid with a picture on it to work off and instead have to use the writing and text patterns. Secondly, we can’t make any amendments to a public record in our custody which means we can’t just assume or guess a piece goes here or there – we have to be sure of it.

Now this is made even more complicated when we have a box of public record confetti, not just a single page. And sometimes it’s all written by the same person with the same handwriting on the same type of paper. Sometimes it’s the same form replicated throughout.  Does this piece go with this page or that page?

Picture of fragments of a page or paper record being pieced back together
Picture of fragments of a page or paper record being pieced back together by hand

Why is it important to know this? Because it really shows how the right (or wrong in this case) temperature and humidity conditions an effect your records and cause damage.

Mould

Most of us know a little about mould – in the bathroom, during a really humid and rainy wet season, on the shoes that went back in the cupboard without being dried first or worse, after a flood.  

Apart from the health risks of mould, mould is just as bad on records as it is on your shoes or the curtains… actually sometimes worse because it’s slightly harder to clean and you can’t just replace it like you can your shoes (hopefully they’re not really awesome shoes). It’s also a problem because mould on records doesn’t really ever go away – it just sort of goes to sleep, waiting for an opportunity to wake up and wreak havoc again.

Mould is also a tricky beast because it can be difficult to tell sometimes if a record is mouldy or just dirty or discoloured, and even trickier to work out if the mould is active (awake) or not (asleep). The other problem is that one mouldy record can very easily spread that mould to other records, so it’s important to keep them separate.

Picture of paper records affected and damaged by mould

So, what do we do about it? First of all, we try not to let it in – in short, we do not accept the transfer of any actively mouldy records. If we do have any, particularly the sleepy (dormant) kind, we do what we can to make them safe to handle, store and access – this usually means bagged and tagged and isolated until it can be cleaned and sanitised which takes special skill, equipment and loads of time.

We’ve covered mould before in the QCN and also on our website so head over there to find out more.

More information

For those of you who have done a tour will know I’ve missed a few other important bits of our virtual tour. We’ll continue our visit next week.

In the meantime, if you want more information on storing, protecting and caring for records – both digital and physical, salvaging damaged records, and why good storage is key, check out our advice on the website. Remember, you can contact us via email, telephone (3037 6630), Records Connect and on the website.

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