Collection Material Inspection and Cleaning

While preservation assessment includes detailed inspection of materials for many different facets that can affect long-term access, more generalized assessments of large numbers of pieces can also be beneficial, particularly when inspecting incoming gifts or collections that have been in storage for long periods of time.

When processing a newly acquired or poorly processed collection, there are several elements to consider that will be critical to ensuring that its materials will not cause harm to other collections. Most traditional archivists and librarians are already well aware of the dangers caused by acidic paper and folders. At the same time, museum specialists and special collection archivists often have had experience with materials that stain or transfer substances to neighboring objects. Complementing the practical experiences of collections managers, the PSAP provides further information about deleterious materials. For example, the Environmental Guidelines cover issues related to toxic offgassing and to the ventilation of storage enclosures and environments. The Adhesives guide covers the transfer and staining behaviors of glues and tapes. The article you are currently reading addresses diagnostic inspection of materials along with cleaning and repairing of materials as means to prevent further damage and to mitigate the spread of damage across collections.

For more detailed information, see

  • Collections Care / Preservation
  • Material Inspection

    Simple inspections of materials can identify a number of problems, such as pest exposure, mold, and physical damage. They can also be very effective in assessing the condition of items at a level in which documentation and description is easily done.

    The first consideration of institutions should be whether or not they have the staff, physical space, and resources to undertake an inspection of collections in-house. As an assessment tool, the PSAP provides a way to circumvent some of the hurdles that smaller institutions have trouble getting around. In particular, the program relies on visual inspection, which is an approach that does not require specific equipment or advanced training. PSAP Supplementary guides are intended to aid both staff and volunteers as they assess collections with unfamiliar materials and formats. Though full format profiles are also available in the Collection ID Guide, these are a few identification cheatsheets:

    In some cases however, diagnostic inspections are impossible, due to either institutional limitations or the state of the material to be assessed. Institutions do not always have the resources to provide specialized equipment and playback devices. This situation can be as simple as:

    The situation could also be more complicated, such as:

    In these cases, it may be wise to enlist the help of preservation and conservation specialists.

    Audiovisual Playback Inspection

    Audiovisual materials pose a dilemma to collections managers. In order to know for certain the condition of many kinds of AV materials, we must play them. Yet this playback can damage the materials, rendering them inaccessible and possibly destroying them altogether.

    Playback inspection poses risks to materials that cannot always be anticipated. When using the PSAP, remember that playback assessment for AV items like magnetic audio and video tape (which cannot be fully evaluated with the naked eye) is more definitively diagnostic than visual inspection, but they are also more potentially perilous. However, it is important to keep in mind that even a tape in pristine condition can be damaged by a playback device. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to predict with visual inspection alone which items will have trouble in playback. For this reason, the PSAP does not recommend playback assessments unless you are reasonably sure of the items’ physical integrity and of the proper functioning and cleanliness of your playback devices.

    In spite of the advantages sometimes provided by playback inspections, visual inspections do reveal quite a lot of important information about collection materials. They can tell you if an item has been damaged by sunlight, water, poor storage conditions, pests, and mold. They also help identify developing and existing problems with the materials’ formats themselves. For example, close visual inspection of a magnetic tape (audio, video) may reveal that it is suffering from sticky shed syndrome. Thus not only would the tape be unsuitable for playback, it also would be in need of remediation (e.g. baking).

    Inspection Spaces

    Before starting the task of assessing a collection, you must consider whether or not it is a good idea to do so in-house.

    Perhaps the first question to ask is, is there a designated clean space for new items to be unpacked and unloaded? Separate from work spaces used for processing and separate from where collections are held, this area should be a fail-safe that enables you to ensure that no matter the state of the incoming materials, your other holdings will remain protected.

    Dedicated Inspection Space

    To begin assessing a collection, you should have a clean, dust-free, and well-ventilated space dedicated to the handling of materials. This space will serve as a staging area, where materials can be inspected and made ready for later use. This area is where you can perform basic cleaning and repairs as well. Furniture and surfaces in inspection spaces should be large enough to accommodate the largest of the formats featured in your collection.

    Materials to have in this space may include:

    This is a basic list. You will need more specific materials based on the formats you collect. Inspection areas also should be laid-out with a mind for giving space to the equipment that you may need frequent access to as well as for the equipment that are used less often, including:

    For more information about inspection procedures and spaces, see the following links:

    Cleaning and Repairing

    After performing a diagnostic inspection on the collection, an institution may find that it cannot carry out preservation and conservation efforts as expected. Sometimes, the problem is not that an institution lacks the resources or dedicated working space to give a collection for repairs and cleaning but that other institutional forces prevent conservation from taking place. These factors may include:

    Outside of institutional considerations, other major factors that determine whether the collection should be sent off to experts for cleaning and repair include:

    Similar to the problems impeding material inspection, the best solution can be to send a collection out for treatment by specialists. For more on conservation and conservator services in your area, see these links: