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Helping smaller institutions preserve their own collections

A large academic institution like Northwestern University Libraries has ample staff and resources for the upkeep of its materials. But many smaller cultural institutions might hold significant collections and still not have the expertise — or even the budget — to preserve their materials properly for posterity.

Enter an annual event called Preservation in Action, a program that promotes an understanding of the importance of preservation while engaging with cultural heritage collections at a host institution. Preservation in Action (PiA), is organized and led by preservation professionals, with volunteer librarians from all over – gathered in one place while attending the massive American Library Association conference – most of them with no preservation experience. The goal is to provide preservation care and handling training to non-preservation librarians and staff at the host institution.

The day-long event also involves hands-on rehousing activities. Their efforts are buoyed by support from the ALA’s Association for Library Collections & Technical Services and vendor donations of archival supplies like acid-free folders, polypropylene sleeves, and boxes.

Siobhan McKissic and Miriam Centeno, planning team members from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, demonstrating care and handling techniques

Siobhan McKissic and Miriam Centeno, planning team members from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, demonstrating care and handling techniques.


Frances Harrell, of the Northwest Document Conservation Center, discusses preservation practices

Frances Harrell, of the Northeast Document Conservation Center, discusses preservation practices.

Katie Risseeuw, a preservation librarian for Northwestern Libraries was the lead coordinator for this year’s event at the Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank, a “hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center” in Chicago. In June, the group helped the Arts Bank preserve two collections comprising papers, photographs, ephemera, and vinyl albums.

This year’s event even caught the attention of the Chicago Tribune for one of this year’s selected collections that raised ethical considerations. We spoke with Risseeuw about the importance of PiA’s efforts  — and that newsworthy collection choice.

This sounds like a lot of work. Why do people feel compelled to volunteer for this project?

Risseeuw: More and more, those of us in the field realize that the principles of preservation reach beyond our institutions and into surrounding communities. It’s not just about archival folders, it’s valuing the stories and artifacts that are under-represented in larger libraries and archives. The Stony Island Arts Bank has these collections but, as a young institution, not the preservation resources or expertise. We worked with them to develop sustainable preservation practices while also gathering a group of 30 people to do a large amount of work that immediately helps the collection.

Volunteers rehousing sheet music and postcards

Volunteers rehousing sheet music and postcards.


Supplies and collection materials set up for rehousing

Supplies and collection materials set up for rehousing. Donated by Archival Products.

This year, the host site has a particularly unusual collection. Can you tell us about it and why it is important to preserve it?

Risseeuw: The Stony Island Arts Bank has a few interesting collections, but the Edward J. Williams Collection jumped out as the one most in need of preservation care, due to the physical nature of the materials. The collection of over 4,000 items is primarily made up of ephemera – meaning items not intended to last – such as advertisements, postcards, and

Maya Wallace looks over slave documents.

Maya Wallace looks over slave documents.

newspapers, as well as photographs, papers, textiles, and objects. It is important that we prolong the life of the materials because of what they represent – demeaning depictions of African-Americans throughout U.S. history, from runaway slave articles to blackface sheet music. The collection contains a pile of early Aunt Jemima advertisements cut from magazines. Postcards with incredibly derogatory stereotypes of African-American children. Receipts from the sales of people. The Williams Collection is held by an organization physically located within the black community, which creates a much different space for it than if it were in an academic archive.

Luckily, the collection isn’t wholly consumed by racist materials. There are many photographs of black families casually resting in a backyard, soldiers in WWI, and portraits from the 1890s; signed headshots of successful musicians; newspapers from Obama’s election. These tell a parallel story that is just as important. Preservation is access, and by putting a stack of papers into archival folders, people can use the collection much more easily.

Participants putting Frankie Knuckles’ vinyl records into new sleeves

Participants putting Frankie Knuckles’ vinyl records into new sleeves.

A few people from the group also took on the Frankie Knuckles’ vinyl collection. He’s known as the Godfather of House Music and was a pioneering musician in Chicago. We put a small fraction of his records in archival sleeves for protection from dust and wear.

How did you choose to work with Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank?

Risseeuw: Several of us on the Preservation Outreach Committee were interested in the Arts Bank as a host institution from the beginning. They include the surrounding community in many ways, but it was their community cataloging sessions that drew me in. Having the public come in to interact with collections that way made us think they would be open to an event like PiA. We knew they had collections that could benefit from preservation, so I approached them. The staff at the Arts Bank was so generous with their time and support in planning for the event.

Is there more demand for these services than PiA can address? How many cultural heritage organizations are in need of preservation guidance — and what should they do if they don’t have PiA expertise?

Risseeuw: There are so many small organization with great collections that don’t have in-house expertise or funding. A lot of information is available online, from best practices to in-depth standards, such as NEDCC Preservation Leaflets, the Library of Congress, and National Park Service Conserve-o-Grams. NEDCC has information about preservation assessments and grant opportunities.