Archival Tips for Alpha Tau Omega Chapters


The Alpha Tau Omega Archives collection includes original letters and manuscripts from the 1860s that are in fine condition ... and others from the 1980s that are falling apart. There are interesting-looking artifacts in the holdings that are almost meaningless because we do not know who once owned them or how they were used.

Do what you can, now, to preserve the physical condition and the meaning of your ATO documents and memorabilia. Keep them cool. Keep them dry. Keep them labeled. Keep them in darkness.

Here are some suggestions to help you take care of your personal and chapter ATO papers, pictures, publications, and other records and artifacts, whether you keep them or contribute them to the ATO Archives at UIUC.

Many of these suggestions are amply illustrated in the University of Illinois Library's preservation website.  While some of the comments there are specifically directed to library workers, the general ideas--and the photographs--are appropriate to anyone who has books, pamphlets, or papers worth saving.


Paper documents and publications

Books should be stored on edge. If they are too tall, store them spine down. Don't tilt them. If you lay them flat, be sure that smaller ones are on top, that the surface is really flat, and that the stack is no more than 3-4 high.

Paper self-destructs because of acids and other chemicals used in papermaking. For documents that are likely to be legally or historically important, use rag paper. Cheap recycled paper may not last.

File loose papers, magazines, brochures, photographs, pamphlets, and the like in labeled manila folders.  Don't let your papers curl or bend: if you can't file them upright, store the filled folders flat in a box. Don't overfill the folder; use the creases in the folder once the stack gets to about a quarter-inch to one inch thick. Lightly pencil in a date on each item.

Looseleaf binders stress the papers within them, and vinyl covers "outgas" chemicals that damage other plastics and photographs. If you must keep records in a binder, put them in individual mylar or polyethylene sleeves.

Scrapbooks are fun to look at but often bad for preservation: they often mix different materials together that really need to be treated separately. Try to put yours together using materials from an archival supply company: acid-free paper, non-vinyl plastics, no tapes nor paperclips, weight evenly distributed on the pages.


Photographs and Other Media

Store prints, negatives, and slides in non-vinyl sleeves, available from photographic supply stores and archival suppliers.

If you have old movies around that say something about your chapter, or significant alumni, or about ATO in general, treat them well. Don't play old movies. Make a video for your own records (better, make two, one copy to play, the other to make playable copies from as they wear out) Send the original to the ATO Archives.

Be sure the films you keep (and any you ship) are on "safety film." (The package will be marked.) Movies made before World War II were often made on nitrate film, which becomes explosive as it deteriorates. If you come across nitrate film, get it out of your building and immediately consult a conservation professional.

Digital information can disappear in a heartbeat. Save files on fresh disks and in hardcopy. Periodically "refresh" (re-record) the data.  Be sure to label disks with a descriptive title, date, and format.  Make backups of your computer files; they should be stored separately from your working copies in case of fire, flood, or theft.

Video or audio tape recordings don't last much beyond 10 years, even if they aren't played frequently.  As anyone stuck with a box of old 8-track audio tapes or old Beta videos knows, it can be hard to find equipment to play them with. As with preservation of other record formats, it is important to keep tapes cool and dry.  Store tapes in boxes (ideally, low-acid cardboard or non-vinyl plastic) and on edge rather than flat.  Be sure to label the container with the basic who-what-when, and the recording format.


General Storage and Handling Tips

The best storage is cool, dry, and dark, away from things that could cause physical or chemical damage to your materials.

Keep your hands and work area clean. Keep all food and drink far away, both because they can damage your records directly and because they attract vermin who will eat and excrete them. Try to store your materials in a cool, dry place, protected from light, sharp objects, and pests. Don't wedge things together.

What you write on and with can make a huge difference.  "Post-it" type sticky-notes damage print and paper.  Pens, pencils, and printers are not all alike; some fade and others cause damage.  Pencils are better than pens, most of the time.  Use a soft No. 2 pencil, writing lightly. On glossy papers and plastics, use a Staedtler Lumocolor Permanent Pen (#313 is preferred but sometimes #318 works better), available at art stores.

Binder clips and paper clips are forbidden.  Staples are acceptable--barely. Loosely keeping related items together in low-acid envelopes or low-acid folders is preferred.

Water damage can be disastrous. Don't let anything sit around, especially if it's on glossy paper. Put unfolded paper towels on each side of the wet sheet of paper. Often, air drying will work, but extreme cases can require freeze-drying -- see a professional if you have doubts.

Moving and shipping cause wear. Whether you're routing materials for others inside the chapter for others to see, or you're sending them to the National Headquarters or the ATO Archives (or to your college or university library), give some thought to how you pack and mark them.


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Student Life and Culture Archival Program

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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign