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Round Collections, Square Boxes

March 30, 2018

When I am on the road with the Local History Services department, the folks who run local history organizations often ask, “What boxes, folders and supplies should we buy?” The question originates in the uncertainty surrounding not just how to house existing objects in the collection but also how to house new objects after they are accepted into the collection. The great variety of shapes, sizes, materials and formats of objects can make the purchase and stockpiling of archival containers difficult to comprehend. Often it seems that our collections are proverbial round pegs that just never seem to fit into the square holes of storage containers. Thankfully, we have a tool at the Indiana Historical Society that can reduce this uncertainty. This tool, known as the “Storage Guide to Archival Collections,” is a constant point of reference when preparing a new archival collection for the public.

What is the “Storage Guide to Archival Collections” and how did it come about? I turned to Ramona Duncan-Huse, senior director, Conservation, here at IHS for a little background on the guide and what it is intended to do. Ramona reported that several years ago, her “conservation technician, Anne Gergel, had the responsibility of providing housings for items in the collection.  She had questions about how to store things – all things – [and] what sorts of housings were made and why.” This line of thought led to the idea of a reference manual that listed basic questions to ask about the object, like type and size.  In Ramona’s words, the end result was a “Manual that helped describe an existing storage model which helped interns and processors consider consistent questions about a collection which [the Manual ] would answer.”  In short, the “Storage Guide to Archival Collections” anticipates the wide variety of items that are typically part of a new batch of materials donated to the historical society and provides clear directions on how to select the folders, boxes and sleeves best suited for the long-term preservation of the items in question.

Although the focus of the “Storage Guide to Archival Collections” is on paper, books, photographs and audio/visual materials found in archives, the idea could be adapted for organizations with a more object-focused collection as well. With a storage guide in place at your museum or historical society, guesswork surrounding how to best house an object could be reduced by comparing dimensions and materials of the object to a predetermined list of appropriate archival containers. Having a list of typical boxes, folders and sleeves available would also take the guesswork out of ordering supplies, since the most commonly used containers would be a known factor. While not every oddball object could be covered using this system, the aim here is to prepare ahead of time for the majority of the items that come your way, and make time to adjust to the out of the ordinary objects that might require a customized container to store them.

If you would like to see a copy of the “Storage Guide to Archival Collections” or connect with Local History Services at IHS, please contact me at arowe@indianahistory.org to learn more.

A round sugar bowl in the IHS collections fits nicely into its rectangular box.

Historical Image: Anderson Box Company Chicken Boxes, Inland Container Corporation Papers, IHS

Alan Rowe Alan divides his time between the library and archives and the local history services department at IHS. He spends quite a bit of his day looking at and thinking about collections and working with the people who take care of the stuff and stories that make up local history. When he isn't doing those things, he's enjoying time with his amazing wife, a terrific toddler and a very large striped cat.

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