As archivists, we are often asked where to purchase archival supplies, such as boxes, folders, and sleeves, for home use. It is a great question. Archival supplies are not typically available through office supply stores, craft stores, or discount mega stores. While products at such stores often stock plastic sleeves, photo albums, and boxes with statements such as “Archival”, “Museum Quality”, and “Photo Safe,” these statements do not necessarily mean the products will not harm historical materials over time.
What do archivists look for when ordering supplies? For paper based products such as boxes, folders, and paper sleeves, the material must be lignin-free and acid free (a pH greater than 7). We often choose materials with a 3% alkaline buffer (pH of 8.5), which helps counteract acidity that off-gasses or migrates from the historical material housed within the enclosure. For plastic sleeves, we look for chemically inert plastics, such as polyester, polypropylene, and polyethylene. These should not have any coatings such as UV-inhibitors or slip agents (used to keep sleeves from sticking to each other), which can be harmful if in contact with historical materials. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) should never be used to store documents or photographs, since PVC discolors and can adhere to materials (think about peeling a photocopy from the inside of a PVC three-ring binder after the toner ink adhered inside the front cover).
For all enclosures housing photographs, we look for enclosures that have passed the Photographic Activity Test, or PAT. It is an international standard test (ISO18916) for evaluating photo-storage and display products. Developed by Image Permanence Institute, this test explores interactions between photographic images and the enclosures in which they are stored. Supply companies will often include the “Passed PAT” logo or include data that the product has passed the test as a statement of quality and pride. If they do not include it, call the supplier and ask if that item passes the PAT.
Please note before reading on, that I nor Wright State University are endorsing any one product or vendor in this post. Archives use reputable archival suppliers such as Archival Products (archival.com), Brodart (shopbrodart.com), Gaylord Archival (Gaylord.com), Hollinger Metal Edge (hollingermetaledge.com), University Products (universityproducts.com), and others. Buying from these vendors does not guarantee that the materials meet the requirements stated above. But now you know some basic criteria to apply when ordering supplies for long term preservation of materials. The products are typically more expensive than regular office supplies.
While archival enclosures are an important part of our preservation efforts, remember that the most important action you can take to preserve your family documents and photographs is keeping items in a cool, dry, dark place protected from large temperature and relative humidity fluctuations and potential disasters (such as basements). Enclosures are barriers to adverse effects of less than ideal environments, such as dirt and dust, air pollution, and fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Enclosures also provide support for archival materials if they are properly used.
April 26-30, 2016 is American Library Association’s Preservation Week. Their website is a great source of information and has past free webinars available, including “Archival 101: Dealing with Suppliers of Archival Products” at http://www.ala.org/alcts/confevents/upcoming/webinar/pres/042513.