To celebrate Preservation Week, we bring you a behind-the-scenes look at Edgewood College Archives. Through photos, you’ll get a close-up look at some of the materials we store and care for.
Archives suffer from stereotypes, just like anything else: dusty and unused. Disorganized. Full of “lost” treasures. Well, dust is certainly our enemy, but archivists, librarians, and curators work to make collections available, useable, and organized. In most cases, we want you to visit!
Visitors are limited right now due to the pandemic, but this photo tour is your chance to catch a glimpse. Right this way!
Factors like temperature, humidity, and light can all have a harmful effect on stored materials, so we keep the lights off and the door closed when no one is in the room. Our goal is to provide a nice, stable environment, relatively cool and dry.
To make the most of our space, we use high-density shelving. Whole rows of shelving units can be moved along tracks on the floor, allowing just enough space for one aisle. If you need to access the materials in a different row, you have to turn the crank on the end of each unit until the aisle space is in the correct spot. Let’s start on the left, where we store the periodicals.
Like many academic libraries, we have stopped receiving physical copies of some journals. Instead, we purchase e-subscriptions or licenses to databases. Lots of journals no longer even offer print subscriptions, just online access. Once you see our older issues of some journals, though, you’ll know why a year’s worth of issues is called a volume: at the end of the year, all of the issues would be bound into a book!
Looking at these bound periodicals, without even opening them, gives us a window into the past and how people thought about and interacted with printed materials. The photo above shows an early volume of Atlantic Monthly from 1863, held up next to many later volumes (the last bound volume in storage is from 1982). Most of them are bound in practical, hard-wearing red library bindings. But even though they are not as durable, the older, fancier examples contain some interesting secrets! Here’s the 1866 volume. Because the binding is cracked, you can see the newspaper used to reinforce the spine. It’s a hidden text, not an official part of the magazine, so it wouldn’t be included in any digitized version.
From 1850 to 2019, our bound volumes of Harper’s magazine are another demonstration of changing times. That’s 169 years of history on two bookcases, and in a variety of different binding styles!
Not all our periodicals go back so far or exist in so fragile a condition. From art to nursing to theology to education, our collection of journals spans a wide range of research interests, and we often respond to requests for a specific article to be scanned. That’s one of the most common quests the library staff make into the archives.
Don’t forget the microfilm! For a little while, microfilm and microfiche were the most exciting way to preserve large amounts of content in a small space. The film itself is very durable, one of the most stable long-term preservation formats. No format is eternal, though, and microform has its drawbacks, such as the difficulty of accessing and sharing items using large, fussy machines. Our library still keeps a microform reader, but it is seldom used. Once digital technology entered the scene, microforms were mostly put aside. Walking along the aisles in the archives though, the occasional microform box pops up, especially around ca. 1985, from the period when microforms were the hottest preservation technology!
Moving on from the periodicals, next we come to the rare books. These are listed in the library catalog even though they cannot be checked out. Many have fine leather or publisher’s bindings or contain engravings or illustrations. The oldest is from approximately 1603, but most of them are not quite that old! About 80% of the 75 volumes are from after 1800. Here are a pair of volumes by Dante and splendidly illustrated by Gustave Doré:
If you took the Preservation Pop Quiz last week, you know that oversize books can pose a problem on the shelves. They need to be supported, or over time their own weight can result in damage to the binding structures. We don’t have the space upstairs for a separate section to shelve the oversize books, but here in the archives, there is a little more room. From volumes barely bigger than your palm to the hefty tomes larger than your head, each one is arranged in the best possible position.
The books small enough to be shelved vertically are arranged by size so that along the row, each book supports the ones next to it. Some of the delicate, brittle, or damaged bindings are secured with fabric ties. You’ll also notice that the identifying information for each book is located on a slip of paper between the pages. No spine labels or barcode stickers on these books!
We’ve come to the end of the row on the left side of the aisle in the archives. Up next on the right side, starting along the far wall, are the maps and yearbooks. From 1994-1972, the Edgewood College yearbooks were called The Torch; from 1974-75 they were dubbed Edgewood College Journal, then later known as The Edge from 1990-1992. You can get a closer look, browse by year, and watch the changes in cover design through the decades by visiting our Digital Collections page for yearbooks.
Now, we have reached the final stage of our archives tour: on your right are the boxed collections which contain the greatest variety of records and artefacts. These boxes all look the same from the outside, but inside you might find anything from old versions of the student handbook, to committee minutes from years past, to the writings and artefact collections of faculty members throughout their careers.
The document boxes are specially designed for archival storage. The ones you see pictured here are for letter-sized papers. If you look closely, you can see the metal edge reinforcements at the seams and the loop of string at the bottom, a convenient feature if you need to remove a box from a crowded shelf without disturbing its neighbors.
The boxes are made to store paper, so they are made from materials free from acid and lignin. Those substances are found in paper, and they contribute to its breakdown over time. Old newsprint on cheap paper is especially notorious for how quickly it becomes brittle and yellow. In a scrapbook or among other papers in a folder, the acidic newspaper can leave brown shadows on the surrounding pages as the acid affects everything nearby. Acid- and lignin-free boxes and folders mitigate some of that damage as the papers age.
A big part of preservation is making sure collections are housed in stable enclosures. That is one of the reasons new collections, like this one, need to be processed when they arrive in the archives. Each item is different, and requires housing in the safest folder, box, or sleeve, with any useful information carefully recorded for future visitors to use in their research.
This concludes our Preservation Week photo-tour of the Edgewood College Archives. Please remember to shut off the lights and re-lock the door!
We hope you will visit us in person as soon as it is safe to do so. In the meantime, explore our Digital Collections through the library’s Special Collections website and reach out to us with any questions at LibAnswers@edgewood.edu.
Oscar Rennebohm Library959 Edgewood College Drive - Madison, WI 53711608-663-3300