In this installment of Ask an Archivist, we talked with Emilia Mahaffey, C.A., History Factory’s Senior Manager, Metadata and Collection Management. Emilia has been with History Factory for nearly 10 years and is one of our many archival all-stars working to intake, organize, protect and maintain irreplaceable client materials. She is among the best in the business.

What goes into an archives?

Emilia Mahaffey: It depends on what the purpose of the archives is, but, generally speaking, materials that will give a snapshot into a company’s activities and culture at any given time.

We often look for photographs, because one can really tell you a lot about the culture of a company. A lot of companies do employee-wide events, so if you take photographs of those employee events, that really helps show the culture and the connection the employees have to each other and to what your organization does.

Founding materials are hugely important, as are anything to do with anniversaries.

Correspondence is also great to keep. With the advent of email, that’s hard, because we correspond a lot more than we used to. But—think companywide announcements or longer emails that lead up to a deal or some other major development that’s important to your company. Major events would be its founding, anniversaries, IPOs, structural leadership changes. Internal newsletters capture a lot of those types of activities.

How do we decide what we keep?

This ties into the last question. As I said, big events related to the company, but in addition, materials around events that may not necessarily be related to your company. For instance, the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 just happened. Almost certainly everyone had some interaction with Sept. 11 if your company was around. So, if you have anything around that, that can be good to have to connect what you are going through with what the country is going through.

But not all materials related to these major historical milestones or watershed moments—for example, you would want to try to keep it company-focused, so you want to make sure you’re focused on what your organization was doing during these moments. Newspaper articles, for example: Those are stored in other places, like public libraries. But if your company sent out a memorandum or directive in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, that’s interesting. How did you react to that event?

We already have informal archives. How do I either add to it or update it or get rid of some “stuff”?

First of all, if your organization has an informal archives, I’m really excited because it means you’re heading toward formal archives. I appreciate that.

Having the materials is what’s most important, and really having them in one place. If possible, start with an informal list, even if it’s high-level, of what is inside each box. If you do decide to formalize it down the road, this will be incredibly helpful, as taking stock of everything is usually the first step in our archival assessment. If you do decide to formalize it down the road, having things organized and consolidated makes the assessment really simple. A consulting archivist can get a really good sense of what the archives can be built on based on that closet that you’ve been building.

One thing that I’ve seen work is sort of setting yourself up through the grapevine as the “archives person”: someone who loves collecting historical stuff. Get the word out, of, “If you’re getting rid of anything, give it to me.” Having someone like that in an organization and a company can be incredibly useful if and when you decide to create a formal archives, because you’re gathering knowledge while you’re gathering the materials. And then if you do decide to use an archival expert like History Factory, the archivists can use you as a touch point for reference. We love having people like you.

My organization is downsizing or we’re going fully remote. What should I do with all the physical historical assets that my company has?

EM: I’m a big proponent of physical assets, principally because we know that paper lasts hundreds of years. We don’t yet really know how long digital assets last, which is where everyone wants to go. They want to make everything digital, which I completely understand. We’re on our computers every day. That’s how we access the world now. And so much of our stuff is born digital. It comes to us that way.

Having said all that, I do understand that space is expensive. I work with a very wealthy financial services company and even they are downsizing their office space. What they’re choosing to do is store a lot of their materials in Iron Mountain, so that is always an option. Iron Mountain, or another storage facility like that—they often provide lower cost storage options than what you might find, especially if you’re in a populous city. However, those places have their limitations in terms of preservation, as not all their storage spaces are climate-controlled.

History Factory has great storage options, too, that are better than some parts of Iron Mountain. History Factory can guarantee that we’re providing the humidity- and temperature-controlled environment. So, especially for older papers and photographs and film, it’s important. Photographs tend to stick to each other if they’re not taken care of appropriately.

But those are some downsizing options for specific types of physical materials. Also, if you have inaccessible items due to past generations of technology—you know, things on cassette tapes, or CDs when you don’t have a CD drive—there are other digitization options that are great, too.

How do I ensure access to our organization’s materials for people within our organization?

There are two types of access: internal and external. The first is only for people within your company. The second is for everyone else outside of your organization who might find the materials interesting.

If you have any materials digitized, that can make it a little easier to access the materials. I said earlier that I recommend a lot of things stay physical, but there is what we call access digitization, so if you have a particular item that people want to see a lot that’s not digitally available, creating a scan can be really useful. Having high-importance assets on a website is a really good way to bring attention to the archives but also make the material accessible so people are learning more about the company as well. Having that kind of digitization effort, even if it’s not digitizing everything in your archives, is great for physical materials.

And then there’s Digital Asset Management (DAM) systems that are specially made to control and share assets in a variety of formats—images, videos, documents, etc. If you have digitized items and you want to make them more generally accessible, you can do that in a couple of ways. If it’s just an internal DAM system and you’re not concerned about your people using it externally, you can just sort of put it up there. You can also put watermarks on your items to keep them from being used without your permission. DAM systems also allow you to attach metadata to the to the scanned assets, to make them easier to search and more accessible to those who are not familiar with archival hierarchies or naming conventions

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