Preservation Week at the UBC Library—Part I

The American Library Association is celebrating its second annual Preservation Week, and UBC Library has been taking part by offering a series of public lectures and webinars. I’ve taken in a couple of them so far, and although they’re only tangentially related to publishing, I thought I’d still share a few of the tidbits I’ve learned.

UBC Library and digitization

Robert Stibravy of UBC Library’s Digitization Centre gave us a tour of some of their digitization equipment.


The TTI is a reprographic copy stand: it has a large surface equipped with a vacuum that can keep documents flat (even those that have been rolled up or folded), along with an overhead 48-megapixel digital camera that can be moved up and down and can accommodate a zoom or telephoto lens, depending on the size of the material. The TTI can image items up to 40 inches by 60 inches, and it can take multiple shots of each pixel, isolating each colour, which allows for excellent colour reproduction. LEDs illuminate the work from an angle, so it’s possible to image a framed work without taking the item out of the frame and without glare from the glass.

The Contex

The Contex looks a bit like a wide-format printer or plotter, but it’s actually a scanner, accommodating material up to 54 inches wide;  it uses a row of light sources and feeds the material through. Whereas the TTI’s single-camera setup means that a very large image can have minute aberrations at its fringes, the Contex has no aberration issues and is ideal for materials such as maps, where the representations must be absolutely accurate.

The Atiz

The Atiz is a cradle (V-shaped) scanner used for bound material such as books. It’s typically used to scan fragile books, because it can capture images from a book without damaging it. You have to turn the page manually to scan each spread, so scanning a rare book with the Atiz is slow process. “But for rare materials,” said Stibravy, “The material always comes first.”

Flatbed scanners

High-end Epson 10000XL flatbed scanners are the stalwarts of the Digitization Centre; they’re used to image more than all other machines combined, and they produce excellent images.

The flexScan

A lot of material to be digitized is in microfilm or microfiche. The flexScan by nextScan is used to scan various sizes of microfiche. Among the Digitization Centre’s projects is the digitization of small-town newspaper microfiche, from the B.C. archives in Victoria. These documents are of enormous historical value, because “back in the day, that was the main vehicle of communication,” said Stibravy.

He also told us about a project launched by Library and Archives Canada in collaboration with Canadiana to digitize microfilm of the Canada Treaty Series and Parliamentary debates. Many of those records are hand-written, and the partner organizations will solicit help to transcribe them once they’ve all been scanned.

The Fujitsu fi-6670A

This high-speed document scanner can scan ninety pages per minute duplex and accommodates pages as small as a business card and as large as tabloid newspaper pages. One project that the Digitization Centre uses it for is to digitize a series of laboratory notebooks for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. These notebooks contain a historical record of fish populations—information that will be essential to managing fisheries.

Other equipment

The Digitization Centre keeps older equipment, such as a ReVox reel-to-reel tape deck, to digitize legacy media. “Old-school” material, as Stibravy calls is, “is in dire need of digitization.”


Almost all of the textual material that the Digitization Centre images is sent through an OCR process. The Digitization Centre’s workflow and excellent OCR software (Abbyy) allow for a high recognition rate (mid- to high 90 percent). After OCR the texts become searchable.


Sarah Romkey, archivist for Rare Books and Special Collections, and Bronwen Sprout, the library’s digital initiatives coordinator, took the stage to explain some of the library’s digital preservation work.

People think digitization is a way of preserving print material, but digital preservation is its own complex beast with a unique set of  preservation challenges. It involves the “active management of digital information over time to ensure its accessibility” including well-thought-out policies that take into account the long-term impact of changes in technology.

UBC Library began developing its current digital strategy in 2011, in conjunction with Artefactual Systems. Their digital preservation tools include archivematica, an “open-source system designed to maintain standards-based long-term access to collections of digital objects,” as well as AtoM, an open-source web-based archival description software that allows people to search through digital archives and find what they need.

Romkey was also involved with developing policies and procedures for born-digital materials—which start life as digital objects and may never become print objects. One of the tenets of archiving is the concept of “original order”: the order of photos in a box or album, for example, offers important context. On storage media like CDs, however, or on legacy media such as floppy disks, original order is harder to pin down, because files can be sorted and stored in any number of configurations. To prevent the machine used to read the digital files from renaming and rearranging them, the digital preservation team has to use a write blocker to preserve their order.

The team also has to grapple with intellectual property issues. The digital rights to the materials has to be confirmed with the copyright holders. Some donors would like the library to provide access to the material but retain copyright, for example. The library has had to develop a donor agreement to deal with digital copyright.

Sprout mentioned also that an ongoing consideration of the digital preservation strategy was to integrate the growing archives into the library’s existing systems, such as the institutional repository, cIRcle.


Low-cost ways to preserve family archives

Karen E. K. Brown, preservation librarian for the University at Albany, SUNY, University Libraries, gave a talk via webinar on preserving family archives.

Preventing damage, she stressed, is far preferable to repairing damage, so it’s important to develop good storage and handling practices.

Family archives matter because they “tell the story of who we are,” said Brown, and give future generations “a record of where they came from.” Family archives can also be an important part of the community’s history.

Family archives—usually a collection of original letters, reports, notes, photographs, etc.—provide historical evidence and data about the person who created them. They may have sentimental value, of course, but some might also have financial value (such as a deed on a parcel of land). They provide proof that an event occurred and might even explain how.

Before storing the archives, Brown said, take some time to organize and document them. On separate pieces of paper, note what you know about each item: for a photograph, who is in the photo, who took it, when and where it was taken; for a letter, who wrote it, who received it, where sender and recipient lived, and when it was sent. Avoid taking notes on the original, if possible; if you absolutely have to, make light, small notes in pencil only. Whenever possible, respect the material’s original order. Diligent organization and labelling can prevent information from getting scattered or misidentified.

The main ways to protect your collections are to:

  • control the environment
  • use the right type of enclosures
  • handle the material as little and as carefully as possible
  • use copies rather than originals

You might also consider how to protect your collections in emergencies.

The environment

Temperature and relative humidity are the two biggest environmental risks. For every 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius), the rate of deterioration doubles. If the humidity is too high, you might encourage mould growth; too low, and leathers and adhesives may dry out. In general, avoid extremes; ideal conditions are 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 18 degrees Celsius) and a relative humidity of 30 to 40 per cent. Practically speaking, these conditions are pretty hard to achieve, so just do what you can. Avoid storing your archives in basements, which are prone to flooding and are notorious for humidity, or attics, which can harbour pests and may get very hot in the summer. Store them in the central part of your home in suitable enclosures, and keep your home cool. Measures like sealing cracks in windows and walls and using insulated curtains, as well as dehumidifying damp areas, will not only preserve your archives but also boost the efficiency of your home.

Light is also a major environmental risk; visible and UV light can cause fading and discolouration and can cause materials to become brittle. This damage is permanent and irreversible. Limit your archives’ exposure to light. Display copies if you can, while keeping originals in the dark. Use low-wattage bulbs with dimmers. Incandescent and LED bulbs are preferable to fluorescents, which put out a lot of UV. You can use UV-filtering Plexiglas, but it’s expensive, and the protection doesn’t last forever.

To protect your archives from dirt and dust, which may scratch, be acidic, or act as food sources for pests, regularly dust and vacuum. Vacuums with HEPA filters are best, and heating systems should also be properly filtered.

Storing and handling archives

Never repair items with pressure-sensitive tapes or commercial adhesives, even if they claim to be archival. Segregate acidic items like newspaper clippings or faxes. Remove all paper clips, pins, rubber bands, etc. View your collection items in a clean area, using clean hands.

When caring for books, shelve them fully upright, using bookends if you need to. Oversize books can be shelved spine down (never spine up) or flat. Don’t pull books out from the head cap, and don’t fold over page corners or use Post-It notes. Store books closed.

For documents, hanging files in a filing cabinet are best. Boxes should be sturdy, chemically stable and have snug lids. If using plastic, opt for polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene and “avoid anything that has a funny smell,” said Brown. Using folders rather than envelopes to store documents minimizes the chances that you’ll damage them when you insert or extract them. Avoid using coloured folders, which can transfer colour to the documents. Any enclosures like envelopes and folders should be acid free and lignin free (lignin is a component of tree bark that can acidify paper and cause discolouration). Buffered paper—which is slightly basic—is also available, but don’t use buffered paper with colour-sensitive documents like blueprints.

For photos, the best enclosures are those that have passed the Photographic Activity Test. Don’t use plastic sleeves if you’re storing photos in high-humidity areas. For albums, use mounting corners, not self-adhesive or magnetic albums. Preserve albums intact whenever possible and store them in boxes.

Oversize collections should be stored flat whenever possible. If you do have to fold, fold items like newspapers along the original centre fold. Stack newspapers in fitted boxes in chronological order. If you have to roll, use the double-tube method: roll it around one tube, secure it with tissue paper and cotton tying tape, then place it into a larger tube capped at both ends, to prevent the item from being crushed.

For AV materials, handle grooved and optical discs by the edges or the centre hole and open reel and magnetic tape by the edges or outer shell. Don’t touch the spools. If it’s deteriorating badly, consult a conservation specialist to get the content copied to new media.

Framing items for home display

People think that framing something is preserving it, but if you’re using adhesives and acidic backing and exposing the item to light, you could be accelerating its deterioration. If you do frame an item, always use 100% cotton mattes and mounting boards. Use a window matte so that the item isn’t in direct contact with the glass. Never use spray adhesives. Don’t fold or cut the item to get it to fit. Keep all original labels. For the best results, consult a conservator for help. When you display your items, hang them in interior rooms, away from heat sources. The mantle may not be the best place to display your family’s treasures.

Prepare for emergencies

When going through your archives, identify ones that are essential:

  • vital records
  • legal records that may help you protect your rights, document your property and financial assets, etc.
  • historically important records.

Make duplicates and store them in a safe place outside of your home. Use a “grab and go” bag to store items that you’d absolutely want to take with you in an emergency. If your archives do suffer damage, items should be air dried or frozen within forty-eight hours to prevent mould growth. Consult a conservator to help salvage damaged items.

Further reading about personal archives


Preservation Week events continue Thursday and Friday, and I’ll give a rundown of those sessions in a few days.

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