Menagerie University

How do archivists archive?

Filipino archivists divulge the intricacies of record preservation to protect, salvage, and immortalize historical memories.

Archiving is more than simply keeping a bundle of records inside a box. In fact, its tedious process encompasses multiple considerations, from regulating room temperature to ensuring acid-free storage. Hence, one archivist usually takes around two to three months to preserve 300 to 500 pages of documents. But what really happens within that time frame?

Step-by-step process

The first step to archiving is appraisal. Archivists assess the value of existing materials, where only records considered to have an enduring value are archived. Each archivist has their own criteria: De La Salle Philippines’ (DLSP) archivists keep records that would “preserve the story of the [Philippine] Lasallian family,” while the National Archives of the Philippines (NAP) mainly preserves paper records that document the country’s historical and national heritage, from the 16th century to the civil registry records of the 1930s. 

Their archives also house records written in various Philippine dialects, according to NAP Executive Director Victorino Manalo. “Through the ‘sinupan, which is what we call ‘archives’ in Filipino, our library has preserved examples of the speech of people in Negros, Cebu, Ilocos, and other areas of the Philippines,” he shares.

In the process of such preservation, archivists may resort to sleuthing if the documents lack sufficient information to store them properly after appraisal and the legal acquisition of the records. DLSP Archivist Ian Saulog recalls how he and Assistant Archivist Isagani Alejandro Jr. had to find clues about a diary’s unknown owner by searching the entries—the owner’s birthday, where they got stationed, and other details of their life. This, he says, makes their work as archivists “exciting”.

Once necessary information is identified, the archivists place the records with assigned serial numbers in the storage areas, which must observe the following criteria: proper ventilation, lack of moisture, and acid-free.

Different materials require varying preservation techniques. To check whether its writings would not be erased, documents undergo an ink solubility test, wherein a wet blotting paper is gently pressed on the record. If the ink does not blot, the document undergoes the wet process—submerging it in distilled water to remove dirt, and calcium hydroxide to remove the remaining acidity. Otherwise, it undergoes surface cleaning and is sandwiched in between mylar sheets.

Unwanted elements out

Archived materials generally have a definite life span. To help them last longer, archivists apply specific preservation and conservation methods. The NAP Archives Preservation Division’s (APD) Senior Archivist Remmel Talabis calls his office a “hospital that treats documents” for longer shelf life.

The DLSP archivists rush to clean archived materials with tape because of acidic composites that speed up deterioration. For these, they either use glue and residue eraser or acetone. They exercise the same promptness with staple wires and plastic covers from sticky photo albums. 

Post-conservation, they ensure that their storage boxes, envelopes, and albums are all acid-free. Getting them is just as tricky as using them. “Yung equipment namin, kasama na yung materials na gagamitin namin for conservation and restorationhindi talaga available dito sa local marketat hindi sila nagproproduce ng ganoong kamahal na material dito na wala naman masyadong gumagamit,” Talabis expresses. 

(Our equipment, even those we use for conservation and restoration, are unavailable in the local market. They also do not produce expensive materials like that here because not many people use them.)

Archivists are also expected to regularly check on their stored documents to ensure they remain safe. “Pag hindi mo binibisita ‘yung records mo, may ibang bibisita diyan at yung bibisita na yon, ‘pag bumisita sa records mo, makikikain pa ‘yun at yung kakainin niya ‘yung records mo,” Talabis jokingly remarks, referring to pests and destructive microorganisms.

(If you do not check on your records, something else will visit it. When they do, they will feel free to feed themselves with your records.)

To avoid mold growth, Talabis advises a range of 16 to 26 degrees Celsius as the room temperature for repositories, apart from regulating the area’s relative humidity. He recognizes, though, that it is not always possible to have an air-conditioned repository: “Pwedeng-pwede na ‘yung isang records repository na well-ventilated. Ang importante ‘yung stale air lumalabas, pumapasok ‘yung fresh air, nagcicirculate ‘yung hangin inside the repository.” 

(A well-ventilated records repository will do. What is important is that the stale air comes out and fresh air comes in; air circulates inside the repository.)

The NAP had its own share of bouts with office fires, water damage, and molds. Manalo narrates this harrowing experience and divulges that it was tedious to mitigate its effects, even going so far as to purchase plastic swimming pools to wash the affected documents in. “Many things were destroyed, but that’s also how they learned to restore objects that were partially harmed by the flood,” Manalo recounts, citing how museums in Florence, Italy preserved their archives.

Archiving from the creation

“The archives [are] only as good as those people contributing to it,” Saulog laments. Their team usually asks the Lasallian Brothers, whose things they prioritize keeping, to hand in their contributions already organized and carefully labeled. “We don’t really know what the context of these (surrendered objects) are; we’d still have to study it,” Saulog expresses in Filipino. “So it would really help if they can make it easier for us to study their submissions.”

Talabis echoes this sentiment, with his office directing government agencies to already store their records well until its disposition phase. This would ease their archiving process. 

The three archivists mentioned many of their issues with regular ink and paper not being necessarily archival-friendly. Regular ink has iron that eats at the paper eventually, and regular paper will sometimes be too thin for long-term storage. Talabis insists on identifying what will be permanent records right at the point of creation. 

Ang malaking trabaho hindi dito (APD)’yung talagang causes ng deterioration, doon sa storage, sa maintenance and use…ng may-ari ng records.”

(The toughest job is not here. The causes of deterioration start in how the owner stores, maintains, and uses these records.)

Saulog upholds, “The archives [are] user-created, owner-created, and [we] just curate them.” If done right, the records might prove what Talabis jested: “Laging sinasabi dito, sa archiving, may forever.” For Manalo, he highlights that “We won’t know what the outcome of everything will be, but…we will still be here. At pag wala na [kami], nandito pa rin ang archives to take care of the documents and records which could serve as the basis of writing [and] making history.”

(We always say here: in archiving, there is forever.)

Kim Balasabas

By Kim Balasabas

Cammylle Beltran

By Cammylle Beltran

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