Preservation Management


Managing archival collections requires a comprehensive approach that incorporates identifying needs, establishing priorities, and allocating resources to meet goals.  


Table of contents showing subsections; Purpose, Background, Applicability, Authority & ResponsibilitSmithsonian Directives (SDs) serve as the authoritative source for policy information about the management, administrative, and programmatic operations of the Institution. The Archives closely follows the recommendations set forth in SD600: Collections Management Policy, which include accessioning, deaccessioning, preservation, inventory, risk management, and access guidelines. The Archives is also responsible for maintaining SD502: Management of Cellulose Nitrate Still Picture and Motion Picture Film. SD502 provides guidance for the reformatting, transportation, storage and disposal of nitrate materials.

Preservation protocols are developed within the Archives for staff and researchers, in order to provide information and instruction about common preservation topics such as mold, frozen storage, pest management, and proper housing of collections. By developing comprehensive policies, the Archives can help to ensure the safety of collections by mitigating potential risks.


At the Archives, assessments are completed for each incoming collection that is accessioned. On average, over 1,200 cubic feet of permanent analog records documenting the history of the Smithsonian are accessioned per year. These assessments rate collections based on their current housing and physical condition. Seven factors are addressed during an assessment:

  1. Housing Needs: An evaluation of the current housing. What percentage of the collection is in folders and boxes, and resided on shelves or drawers?
  2. Housing Materials: An evaluation of the quality of the housing materials. Is the collection in acid-free, lignin-free boxes and folders?
  3. Positioning of Records: An evaluation of the positioning of records within their enclosures. Is the box too full or too loose, messy, or poorly-oriented?
  4. Difficult Formats/Sizes: An identification of records that may be inappropriately housed based on their size or format. Does the collection contain oversized records that are rolled, folded, or forced into an enclosure?
  5. Damaging Attachments: An identification of inappropriate attachments found in the collection such as staples, binder clips, tape, adhesive residue, and rubber bands.
  6. Physical Damage: A summary of the present physical condition of the collection. What percentage of the collection has sustained physical damage such as tears/losses, dirt, stains, water damage, inherent vice, and brittleness?
  7. Unstable Materials: A summary of the types of materials found within the collection. How much of the collection contains unstable materials such as newspaper clippings, color photographs, magnetic media, and cellulose acetate or cellulose nitrate negatives?

Preservation assessments are entered into the Archives collection management system, where the housing scores are combined with other factors, such as historic/research value and use, to calculate an overall preservation priority score. This score aids the preservation team in prioritizing future conservation treatments and preservation interventions.

This assessment methodology was based on a survey tool developed by the Society of American Archivists and the Commission on Preservation and Access Task Force on Archival Selection in 1993. The tool was later used in the American Institute for Conservation’s An ‘Angel Project’ of Dinosaur Proportions.

Risk Management

The Archives manages risks to collections by first identifying and assessing potential risks based on the occurrence of natural hazards in the geographic region, building infrastructure vulnerabilities, and previously experienced risks. Once these risks are identified, they can be prioritized based on the frequency and severity of impact in order to best prepare the Archives and mitigate the damage when a risk is realized. The Archives works to reduce these risks by practicing good housekeeping, such as vacuuming office and collections spaces, testing fire suppression systems, and being vigilant during extreme weather conditions.  

The Smithsonian also provides guidance through the Insurance and Risk Management Office on liability and property matters for collections and general museum activities, such as procuring and administering insurance coverage and determining whether risk exposures will be insured externally or internally. This office measures results and adjusts risk management techniques in order to identify, control, and finance accidental loss. When the Archives loans items to other organizations, they partner with the Smithsonian’s Risk Manager to ensure collections are protected during the loaned timeframe.