The conservation of archives is necessary to preserve the past: the archives are the souvenirs of our history. The creators and former keepers of the archives, however, were not aware of the historical value of these papers for future generations. The poor condition of many documents make the preservation of archives a very time consuming, expensive and difficult job.

The conservation activities can be divided into different types of work. Each activity needs a different kind of expertise. The preservation model looks like a pyramid.

conservation activities


I. Preventive conservation

The basic activity of the preservation pyramid. It comprises policy making, including training, attitude, professional thinking and acting of all personnel. It is crucial to develop training programmes for all professions.

II. Passive conservation

Nearly at the bottom of the preservation pyramid. It stands for good house keeping, air purification, air conditioning, depot hygiene and depot monitoring of insects and moulds; all measures that benefits the whole collection. An important element of passive conservation is the assessment of the physical condition of the collection. Various scientific instruments have been developed to get a reliable impression of the type of damage and the level of deterioration. Examples of these instruments are the Damage Guide and the Universal Procedure for Archival Assessment, developed by the Dutch State Archives Service together with the Netherlands Institute of Applied Scientific Research TNO. (link Schadeatlas ...??? en UPAA ...???).

Ink corrosion
(click to enlarge)

III. Active conservation

Much higher in the pyramid. It includes re-wrapping and re-boxing of the objects, cleaning objects, mass-deacidification and disinfecting. Most of these elements can be done by employees who are not conservators. It is essential is that these kind of co-workers are properly trained.

IV. Restoration

The top of the pyramid. It is the most expensive and time-consuming part of conservation. At the same time it is less productive compared to the other mentioned activities. The top of the preservation pyramid is the domain of well-trained conservators. Conservator's assistants, however, can do part of the job.

Damage caused by moisture
click to enlarge)

The importance of conservation

A big part of the archives of the Dutch East India Company suffers from severe damage like iron gall ink corrosion, mechanical damage, moisture and infestation due to the physical nature of the objects, which are made of organic materials. The kind and level of damage differs in every country. Tropical circumstances like a high temperature and a high humidity have an accelerating effect on the decay of the archives.

Damage caused by moisture and insects
(click to enlarge)


Exchange of knowledge and experience

All archival institutions have there own conservation experts and face their own specific problems in the field of preservation. The consultation and collaboration of these experts may give answers to many problems. Workshops are useful instruments to benefit from each others' knowledge and skills. Another good instrument is training on the job. This can be applied to all levels of archival employees.


The schooling of high educated specialists as well as the training of non-specialist personnel are vital for the preservation of the archives. Everyone, scholar, archivist or depot co-worker, must be aware of the consequences of unprofessional handling of the archives. Of course the different kinds of employees need different levels of training. But at all levels staff members must be aware that they are not handling some papers, but that they are handling the history of their country and its inhabitants.

Damage caused by insects
[Cape Town]
(click to enlarge)


Another way of preservation of archives is microfilming. Microfilm is an excellent solution to preserve the written, drawn or printed information inside the objects. The information about the object itself (paper, ink, parchment, leather etc.) however can only be studied if one keeps the original object. Unfortunately in some cases microfilming may turn out to be the only solution to preserve the archives in the long run. Especially in those cases it is essential to use high quality standards for the films, the recording and the handling during the microfilming. The use of low quality microfilms means the loss of information and the destruction of the archives as well.

Acidification and moist
[The Hague]
click to enlarge)

Before microfilming, sometimes conservation treatments have to be carried out due to the physical condition of the object. If the object is in a very poor condition it has to be reinforced before microfilming can start. On the other hand, when a specific restoration technique leads to less readability of the documents, one should consider careful microfilming before restoration.

Related internet links

Resources for Conservation Professionals
Survey of internet links concerning conservation
Ink Corrosion Website

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