Monday, February 16, 2009

Definition of Terms

This week, I should be getting the last of our materials back from the Conservation Lab. I never got the chance to take a course on preservation and conservation when I was working on my MILS at Pratt, but I always wished that I had the chance to do so. Both preservation and conservation are enormously important to the archives profession, and this project in particular is a prime example of why.

Probably because I never took a class on preservation and conservation, I always get the two terms mixed up! So for those of you who can't keep the definitions straight either, here's are the definitions, pulled from the Glossary of the Society of American Archivists:

n. ~ 1. The repair or stabilization of materials through chemical or physical treatment to ensure that they survive in their original form as long as possible. – 2. The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future through examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education.

Notes: Conservation1 counters existing damage, as distinguished from preservation2, which attempts to prevent damage. Conservation does not always eliminate evidence of damage; restoration includes techniques to return materials to their original appearances (which may include fabrication of missing pieces). – However, conservation2 is often used to include preservation1 activities.

n. ~ 1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property. – 2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment. – 3. Law • The obligation to protect records and other materials potentially relevant to litigation and subject to discovery.
– preserve, v. ~ 4. To keep for some period of time; to set aside for future use. – 5. Conservation • To take action to prevent deterioration or loss. – 6. Law • To protect from spoliation.

Preservation2 is sometimes distinguished from conservation1, the latter describing treatments to repair damage. However, preservation activities are often considered a subdiscipline within the profession of conservation2. – Preservation3 is used in many public records laws to distinguish records from nonrecords; records are those materials that warrant preservation, that are set aside (usually by being filed). Materials that are not set aside for subsequent use do not fall within the scope of that legal definition. In this context, preservation is roughly synonymous with filing, with no connotation of permanent preservation.

In case you prefer to skip over those long definitions, I'll just note the part that pretty much sums it all up: "Conservation1 counters existing damage, as distinguished from preservation2, which attempts to prevent damage. Conservation does not always eliminate evidence of damage; restoration includes techniques to return materials to their original appearances (which may include fabrication of missing pieces)." In other words, we use preservation techniques, like photocopying acidic newspaper clippings or slipping items into acid free Mylar, to preserve the content of those clippings for the future. And we treat damaged items so that researchers can handle them safely and without contributing to further damage.

As I said, this has been especially important with the NYCC collection—as you may have gathered from previous posts, there has been A LOT of material in the collection in need of some major TLC. A large portion of these records were stored in unfavorable conditions and that was evident to Katie and me as we pulled out stack after stack of dirty, dusty, grimy material. Since archival documents are unique, and often times old, acidic, and fragile, they necessitate careful handling and storage in a climate controlled environment—otherwise you end up with a moldy, crumbling, unpleasant mess. There are some conservation and preservation issues that archivists can easily handle themselves: photocopying acidic paper, placing potentially damaging materials between acid free sheets of paper or in some kind of protective encasement, or using cleaning pads and powder or soft bamboo brushes to safely remove dirt from documents.

For anything that requires some really serious damage control (and when you have items that date back to 1768, you've got a lot of damage to control), we send items down to the talented, capable staff in the Conservation Lab. They deal with stuff like red rot on leather bound books

and board replacement on volumes with covers missing. They also relax tightly rolled documents, clean the truly dirty stuff, create special encasings for fragile materials, and generally make everything old and gross look new and pretty again. In other words, they do magical things to save materials that come to them in a sad state and make an archivist's job a little easier and a lot cleaner.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This is the story of the merger of the Chamber of Commerce

Collections come to archivists in a variety of conditions and a wide range of sizes. Sometimes you are lucky--you find yourself facing a well organized, color coded filing system, complete with labels, guides, and dates. (Ok, I think you would have to be really lucky for that scenario to occur!) But more often than not, you find yourself staring down row upon row of disorganized chaos--spineless books, torn and folded papers, illegible handwriting, crumbling newspaper clippings, and the sticky residue of labels that have long since peeled away and disappeared. This is especially daunting if your collection's inventory, like ours, can best be described as "bare bones."

And so begins one of the core elements of an archivist's job--research. There are a seemingly endless amount of questions to be answered as an archivist attempts to make sense of the vast sea of records before her--everything from basic background research into an organization's history and significance to what makes up the duties of the Executive Committee to quarantine stations in New York in the 1800s to the regulation of usury laws. Since no definitive, in-depth histories of the NYCC have been written yet (which makes it especially compelling to researchers), Katie and I have had to do a lot of legwork trying to discern the story of the Chamber. Our biggest hurdle in conducting our research would have to have been figuring why we seemed to have the records of not only the NYCC but also the Merchants Association and the Commerce and Industry Association. Since the organizations were obviously similar in motive and ambition, we assumed it was only natural that each would have the publications and notices of the other; we were more confused by the fact that the NYCC collection contained so much material from the other two organizations, material that we imagined that those organizations should have wanted to keep themselves. Our confusion continued until we began coming across materials labeled, "MERGER."

And then of course, it all made sense.

It took us a while, but we were finally able to piece together a timeline for the evolution of the NYCC, up until it ceased to exist in 2002. I came up with this handy chart to explain the timeline for our presentation in November:

Mergers between the Chamber and other commercial organizations were under consideration as far back as the 1920s when the Chamber began losing members and influence. Our records indicate talk of a merger with the Commerce and Industry Association began sometime in the 1950s and continued throughout the 1960s, resulting in several extensive studies conducted by both organizations to assess the pros and cons.

Because we ended up with the records of both the NYCC and the CIA, we have documentation of the process from both sides, which I'm sure some enthusiastic research will have a fantastic time comparing.

By the time the NYCC officially merged with the New York City Partnership (a philanthropic organization formed by NYCC member David Rockefeller) to form the Partnership for New York City, the offices had long since moved out of its building on 65 Liberty Street, and its membership and administration had severely dwindled. The organization lived out its twilight years functioning more like a typical civic organization; long gone were the days of the Chamber's power and prestige.