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Digital Initiatives: Archiving for Small Libraries

Digital Initiatives department at the North Dakota State Library


This guide covers the basics of archiving materials and how to do this on a limited budget.

Archiving for Small Libraries

Where to Start

Archiving materials can understandably be a bit daunting but knowing where to start with them is the best first and most important step. Once you get started organizing and weeding the materials that the library has then you will have a better idea of where to begin and the task will be much less daunting.

Weeding will be your real first step. Is your library the place where everyone just dumps anything about the town because they think the library wants it? If that is the case then working through the materials and realizing that you don't need them is where you can take back some control of these donations.

Some items that might be given to the library are newspapers, scrapbooks, self-published family histories, yearbooks, and more. 

A simple place to start is by keeping the yearbooks. These are popular with patrons and are great for doing genealogical research into the town. These are also fairly simple to do a digitization project with should that be an option in the future.

The more time consuming option is the newspapers. Depending on the issues that the library was given and their condition you might want to save them or you might want to get rid of them. This is a case of using your best judgement when going through the issues. I would suggest that you keep anything that is significant to the town history if it is in good condition. Such as a centennial edition or if an important person visited town. You know what is important to your town history so go from there when considering the materials to keep or discard.

Scrapbooks will require your own discretion. Some scrapbooks have great information in them and are in good condition. If that is the case for the ones in your library then store these and call it a day. Any other types of scrapbooks will require you to go through them and decide how much time and effort they are worth.

What to Know

Knowing the history of your town and the needs of your community is the main aspect of what you should know when working with an archival collection. If the community isn't interested in the collection then maybe seeing if other local museums or the state historical society want the collection would be more appropriate. The goal is to have these materials used by researchers so knowing what would be good for different types of research that people may come into your library for will go a long way when working with your archives.

The materials that you will be working with are important to identify first so that you can purchase the correct storage and cleaning items. These materials are probably newspapers, yearbooks, scrapbooks, and photographs. Each of these items requires something a bit different to preserve them for research but they also have some similar materials as well. You can buy items that will work with everything or some that will only work with one thing depending on the item that you want to preserve. Say that your library has a little bit of everything mentioned. If you follow the steps of where to start you will be able to narrow down the most important items to start with and then work from there on what you need to store them and preserve them. In this case preservation would putting the items in proper storage containers, cleaning them if needed, as well as repairing any items. 

Now the really tough items are scrapbooks and self-published family histories. These are obviously materials that people put a great deal of time and effort into and as the librarian you probably think that you should honor that by keeping them. However, if they do not add any value to your collection then keeping them might not be the best option for your library.

Self-published family histories probably only have any real value to that specific family. Unless that family was one of the ones who founded the town then it probably isn't worth having it in the collection. However, that's not to say that all self published books are ones that should be discluded. If it is a history about your town that is one that would be worth including in the collection for patron use. Otherwise these types of materials don't add the knowledge that benefits all. 

Scrapbooks can be just as hard of a decision as those family histories. Some scrapbooks can add great knowledge to a library by showing how the town has changed or how the people have. Other scrapbooks were created with the thought that they would book good but they just are not. These types of scrapbooks can be ones with random newspaper articles in them or other types of ephemeral material that aren't necessarily something that the library would want to keep. The types of ephemeral materials that might be interesting is a scrapbook of wedding pamphlets or church bulletins that are specific to the town.

So what constitutes a scrapbook that you would want to keep? This question all depends on the librarian however some ideas on what to look for will be extremely helpful. If a scrapbook is filled with photographs are these photographs labeled? Do you know the when, where, and who of all or most of the photos? Is the scrapbook specific to one person or event related to the town? If you answered "Yes" to these questions then that is probably a scrapbook that you would like to keep or at least pass along to the local museum if there is one. The reason why these would be ones that could be kept are because they will be easier to use for patrons. Having a scrapbook full of photographs that no one knows anything about doesn't help the library at all. Only keeping items that can be used in research or that the community would enjoy using will keep the collection relevant and hopefully prevent people from dropping off irrelevant material. 

Buying materials can be just as daunting as figuring out which items to keep. There is a huge selection out there of mylar sleeves, boxes, cleaning items, and more and knowing where to start is here is just as important. This section  will highlight what some of the materials are and why they are important.


Knowing what types of materials to purchase for storage will help you organize your items in a quick and efficient manner. Since most librarians do not have a lot of time to dedicate to archival material just knowing that they are stored properly until they can go through the items might be the best option. Storing them properly will mean that the cardboard boxes that they came in will not have the chance to affect the item. Cardboard boxes have acid in them that will eventually hurt the items stored in them. 


Purchasing acid and lignin free boxes is easier than many think. The sites that were mentioned all have boxes of different sizes so depending on the size of the items you are trying to contain you should be able to find something that works for you. There are boxes that lay flat and ones that stand up to fit on shelves so depending on what you need there should be a box for that. Other options for boxes could simply be photograph boxes from your local craft store. These boxes are free of acid and lignin and are designed to hold photographs or small documents until you're able to go through them. If you can leaf acid free paper between the photographs or documents that would be best but if you cannot at least by rehousing them their box will no longer be affecting the items. 


Folders are just as important to consider as boxes especially for large collections that you are storing in larger boxes. The folders are the same as the boxes in that they should be acid and lignin free. Writing on the folders with a pencil is best and the info to put on the tab can be as simple as "Documents from town founding" or "Photographs of centennial". Even when these items are in a folder make sure to interleaf them with some type of buffer (such as acid free paper) so that they will not react to each other. This will also allow you to easily browse what types of materials you have without having to spend a long time organizing.

Preservation Tools

There are many tools out there that will help you succeed in preserving whatever items that you have. These preservation items are things that will help you clean your materials and repair them so that they will last through people doing research with them. 


One of the first items is a spatula (and not the one that you cook with). This little device is metal with two flat ends and each end is different. One end has a point and the other is rounded. This item is perfect for removing photographs from a scrapbook or from each other. It also works for removing stubborn pieces of tape or rubber bands. The key to using this tool is to not be too forceful. Being gentle is the key to making sure that the items aren't damaged during the time that they are being preserved. This is especially important when working with photographs because you don't want to rip the item or in the case of two photos stuck together you don't want to pull off part of one of the photos. 

Bone Folder

A bone folder is great for smoothing out creases for items that have been folded for long periods of time. Using this item to gently but firmly flatten a crease will allow the information in that crease (in the case of document) to be seen easier and digitized in the future. When you need to flatten an item entirely you can put it under heavier objects but when doing that make sure these other items will not damage the original in anyway.


We also hear a lot about wearing gloves when working with archival materials and while you should definitely have a pair of gloves (preferably cloth gloves) they do not have to be worn when working with all types of materials. When working with books and newspapers wearing gloves can actually be detrimental considering they can catch on the pages. This is also the case with some scrapbooks depending on the age and type of paper. When not wearing gloves make sure to wash your hands frequently and make sure to not put lotion on or eat anything after you have washed your hands. Always, wear gloves when handling photographs because the natural oils from your hands will make the photograph degrade. 

Where to Put Them

Small libraries are generally not the best place to store archival materials because these items cannot be contained in one area that will be temperature and humidity controlled. These two aspects are key to making sure that your old items do not disintegrate when they are stored. The proper boxes definitely help but a box cannot protect an item from the fluctuations in temperatures and humidity. What can you do? If your library has a closet that has all inside walls that would be a great place to store the more fragile items. Closets are dark which protects the items from harmful UV rays, generally they don't have HVAC vents in them, and if they aren't connected to an outside wall the humidity level will stay pretty even. 

If an item does not fit in a storage box the item can be wrapped in a material called tyvex and that will protect it from the elements and make it easier to store in some cases. By putting this item in a proper storage area (even wrapped up) it can prolong the life of the item and allow the used of this material for years to come.  

Archival Methods

"Whether a museum is looking to preserve a famous painting or a photographer wants to preserve a treasured photo, both will find the archival supplies they are looking for here at Archival Methods."


Gaylord is perfect for those librarians just starting out in their archiving because they are easy to work with and have a section that makes choosing items perfect for the library easier than ever. This section is actually called "Family History & Collectors" and was created for customers who do not really know where to start with archiving these items. It will guide you through what types of materials are available for the different types of items and it will allow you order smaller amounts than other archival sites. So if you only need 2 boxes, you can get that without ordering a minimum amount of items. 

Hollinger Metal Edge

This site is generally for well funded archives and libraries but they have some useful materials on it that can give ideas on what you might want to purchase for your library. One downside of ordering from Hollinger is that they generally have an order minimum on the popular items like folders and boxes. Unless they are unusually sized like newspapers. Those users can generally get smaller orders for their items. However, their processing materials like spatulas, bone files, and more can be purchased individually since an institution generally only needs a small amount of these items.

University Products

"University Products, the leading supplier of archival materials, provides the quality you expect and the information you can trust. Whether you need archival storage boxes, tools and equipment, library supplies, or preservation framing products, you’ll find all the archival conservation, preservation, restoration and exhibition materials you need at"


There are other sites out there where you can purchase archival materials from. Some of these other sites are specific to archival materials and others are simply Amazon or Hobby Lobby for these types of materials. 

One of the most surprising thing to librarians just starting out in this process is that they can get some of the materials that they will need from their local craft store. The way to tell if these items will work for archiving is by establishing if the item is acid and lignin free. These two parts react negatively to things like documents, photographs, and more. They are what cause tape to yellow and not stick. They cause the yellowing of old photographs and making them brittle. If you find storage materials that do not have either of these two elements then you will be find using items found on amazon or at your craft store for the storage of your archived items.

There are countless resources out there in the form of manuals, books, webinars, tutorials, etc. How you choose to consume these resources is entirely up to your preference of learning. The state library has books on creating an archive for small and rural libraries as well as books on description for these materials. The Society of American Archivists is a font of information on how to preserve these items. And there are countless videos on doing almost anything you can think of.

Webinars/ Tutorials

Helpful Websites


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Many of these resources and programs are funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.