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Date updated: 14/10/2020

It’s fair to say that one of the major causes of the degradation of documents is intensive and/or inappropriate handling.

An effective way to reduce this risk is to manage access to documents by assessing their physical condition.

Caroline De Stefani, Conservation Studio Manager at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), explains how conservators assess the condition of documents and describes the process whereby users can request access to items defined as unfit.

Fit, at risk or unfit

A 'fit' document is available for general access, the item can present minor damage, but handling will not cause damage to its structure or the text.

A document is defined 'at risk' when it is in poor condition and unstable in parts; the structure of the item is compromised, but the text, although in fair condition, can be handled without further losses.

The item can still be consulted, but under staff supervision close to the Archive Study Area (ASA) staff desk. Users usually are warned about the fragile state of the item and given advice on how to handle it.

An 'unfit' document is highly unstable, both the structure and its writing support are severely weakened, the text is compromised, and further handling could deteriorate and compromise the state of the document even more. In this situation the item is not available for general access and only conservators can handle the item to repair and stabilise its condition. Usually a note is made on the catalogue so the item cannot be produced.

Unfortunately, LMA holds a good number of unfit items which are potentially of interest to researchers. So are there ways to access the information contained in Unfit documents that are unavailable for consultation?

Access to unfit documents

The user can request to view unfit documents through LMA’s enquiry service or by filling out an unfit enquiry form available from the ASA staff desk. Each month all the requests are discussed in a meeting where conservators and archivists take a closer look at the requested items.

If the conservation work needed to stabilise the item can be done within 7 hours, then the item will be treated and made available 6 weeks after its assessment.

If up to 24 hours of work is required, then the item will be treated and made available after four months.

Sometimes the work needed is far more than 24 hours in which case other options can be explored. If the item can be safely handled by a conservator, the reader will be invited to look at the item in the Conservation Studio, and with help of the conservator she/he can view the document.

Another option is to scan the document and hand a copy to the reader. However, in some cases the item is so damaged that only a conservation intervention is possible to make it fit again. In this situation the archivists decide whether the document has an historic and cultural relevance to justify the amount of work required and prioritise it above other items.

If the decision is made to go ahead, the treatment of the Unfit item will be added to the annual work plan of the Conservation Studio or in some cases grant-funding will be sought (especially if the item is part of a series or collection of importance in high demand which contains a number of Unfit items).

A balancing act

A programme to assess the condition of archives at LMA has been in place for many years. However, the size of the collections means that a complete survey is not viable: it would take years to go through 100 km of shelving item by item. The Conservation Database already contains around 36,500 entries relating to Unfit items in catalogued collections which it has been estimated would take 600 years to treat. Usually when a member of staff comes across an item that is potentially Unfit for access, they alert Conservation to assess the damage and define its condition. After assessment by Conservation staff, the item is repaired (if this can be done in under three hours), returned, or listed as Unfit/At Risk.

It can be very difficult to balance the accessibility of the item and its care as these two principles sometimes collide. To avoid this friction, conservators provide regular document handling training to staff and users. Public document handling training sessions are available once a month, usually the first Wednesday of the month. We believe that caring for our archives is a responsibility that has to be shared so that everybody can benefit from it.

Further details are given in LMA’s Archive Preservation and Conservation Policy (and in the Handling Guidelines available in the ASA).