and Preserving Collections
Part 2: Paper-Based Material
Oh, those piles and piles of paper! There are important papers that prove our existence, sentimental papers that
tell our story, business papers, art catalogues; the list goes on and on. This is the year I will get organized and
start my own personal archives!
But first, some basic whys and wherefores. What actually constitutes an archive? Broadly speaking, archives house
materials that are important to the history of the person or institution creating it; materials that are not in
Of that material, most of us will find that 95% or so of what we have saved can be winnowed and discarded. Do we
need every Christmas card, receipt, letter of inquiry or playbill we have ever collected? In thinking about these
questions we decide what is important, what is better (or already) housed in the archives of another person or
institution, and what is…dreck.
It is best to focus on one collection type at a time. This helps divide the job into manageable tasks and keep
costs under control. I, for example, recently tackled my bottom file drawer which contained important legal
documents interspersed with multi-generational school reports and expired passports. They had been organized once
before, but through years of use and moves were shuffled and confused. Having fretted and fussed about this for a
couple of years I finally settled down and made decisions about the storage format that would suit me best, and
sorted the contents into piles according to category and chronology.
Many items hit the recycling bin or shredder. Space-worthy papers were grouped into acid-free file folders and, in
some cases archival-quality page protectors. The file folders were then labelled according to content, and the
boxes given general category labels.
This drawer, however, is but the tip of the iceberg. My garage holds Bankers Boxes and Rubbermaid bins full of
letters, old school work, business records, children’s drawings and lord knows what else. In the coming year, tax
filings and receipts older than six years will be headed for the shredder and the rest ruthlessly winnowed. If they
don’t tell an important part of my story, out they go.
Odd-sized documents such as land records, surveys and blueprints are presently stacked in the front hall closet.
Because of their odd sizes they will need custom housing in larger boxes and storage tubes. The personal archivist
benefits from the well-established public archive industry; there are acid-free solutions for almost any size and
Along with storage comes cataloguing. The items in my collections will not be individually recorded, but general
descriptions based on file folder and box labels will be entered on a master list with the box location noted. As
with any large task, creating an archives requires a system and time schedule for tasks, but it all does not need
to be done at once. Those papers have been living in chaos for years. A couple more won’t make any difference!
by Rebecca Pavitt -