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Special Collections & Archives Student Assistant Guide: Handling Archival Materials

A helpful guide for student assistants working in Special Collections.

Do's & Don'ts for Handling Archival Materials

  1. Always ask questions! We will not be angry if you ask question, but we will be furious if you don’t because it means you are probably not paying attention to what you are doing.
  2. Pencil only!
  3. Always keep hands and work area clean and free from contaminants (Please read again! NO FOOD OR DRINK!) Be cautious of handling manuscripts if you have just applied lotion or other products to your hands.
  4. Never apply anything to archival materials that is permanent in nature, i.e., ink, adhesives, labels, tape, unless specifically directed by an archivist.
  5. Do not use post-it notes on photographs or manuscripts.  They leave an adhesive residue on the material. 
  6. Manuscripts and books may not be leaned on, written on, folded, traced over, or handled in any way that may damage them.  All manuscripts must be kept on the surface of the table.
  7. Be aware of the environment of the archives and alert to changes that might indicate trouble.  If you notice unusual smells or signs of impending disaster such as leaky pipes, smoke or rodents, notify an archivist.
  8. Never take it upon yourself to make decisions regarding the condition or treatment of archival papers and artifacts.  Bring anything that seems to need special care to the attention of an archivist, and always be alert for materials that seem out of the ordinary in any way.
  9. At the end of the work period, place all manuscripts or photographs back into folders and boxes.  Do not leave archival materials unprotected at your workspace.
  10. All boxes must be labeled. Consult with an archival associate for the correct type of label. All of our boxes look the same and can sit on the shelf for months and years between use. They must be labeled clearly so they do not get lost.
  11. Never write on the back of a photograph with a pen or pencil, always use a special photograph pencil which is super soft. Ask the Archivist if you can't find one.

  12. Never write on top or over original archival manuscripts, have a separate writing area away from original, one of a kind, l materials. You risk damaging them, either tearing or leaving an imprint in the document you are pressing down on.

  13. When handling photographs, negatives, always use gloves or where one glove to hold the photographs and one without if you need to pull the image from a photo sleeve but never touch the photo/negative with your bare hands because the oils in your hands will leave an imprint on the emulsion.