Preserving History: The Role of the PR Pro as an Archivist

January 1, 2015

[illustration works/corbis]
[illustration works/corbis]

PR professionals have many duties. For some practitioners, it may include the role of archivist. Whether it’s a current or past client, the PR department often maintains historical materials for possible future promotional efforts.

At some point, however, these accidental historians must decide whether to keep or discard the material — designating it as trash or treasure. If they decide to keep it, then they need to store it so that it is preserved for future use.

Client archives can be valuable for creating historical overviews and timelines, and developing anniversary celebrations and retro promotions. In my case, six boxes with 50 years of newspaper clips, photos with negatives, and meeting minutes from the nonprofit Chagrin Valley PHA (Professional Horsemen’s Association) inspired a book, “The Cleveland Grand Prix — An American Show Jumping First” (June 2014, The History Press).

Handling old client materials

“Archives don’t collect everything. Landfills collect everything. But people don’t go to landfills to conduct research,” said Margaret Burzynski-Bays, curator of manuscripts at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. While researching details for the book, I learned more on how to properly preserve my old documents and what to do with other corporate archives that accumulated in my storage room.

Burzynski-Bays, an archivist for 18 years, often works with nonprofit organizations and foundations — typically with the PR and marketing pros.

“They are the ones who inherit the old stuff, such as newsletters and mailers, and work to exploit the history for the purpose of raising money and awareness,” she said.

The Historical Society also works with businesses (either directly or through the PR rep) that have been sold and businesses that are no longer in operation. Occasionally, it receives donations of archives from operating businesses. Documents are considered “old” after the operation doesn’t need access to the information any longer — generally seven years or more. The materials or archives that it’s preserving typically include paper items such as records, photos or film.

After an initial appraisal of the collection, if accepted, the donor gives up his or her rights to the materials but still has access to the donated collection just like anyone in the public. The archive department reviews the items and then determines what it will save, send to other appropriate historical societies or specialty locations, or destroy.

According to Burzynski-Bays, digital donations are not common. “As a society, we are in a state of transition regarding going paperless and how to do it,” she said. “The process is expensive and there are many different format options, which makes the job of the archivist challenging. In any given year, we may receive 100 to 120 collections of varying sizes, which could range from a single document to hundreds of boxes of papers. In that same period, I might receive three or four collections in digital form,” she said.

“History is being made now,” she added. “Innovation needs to be documented.” Her advice for PR archivists: When you’re unsure if something is trash or treasure, contact your local historical society and ask. If they do not accept the material, then they can refer you to someone who may be interested.

Storing archives

As you store archives, remove staples, paper clips, rubber bands or other unnecessary plastics and metals from the collection. Unfold and flatten papers and photographs. Place items in containers and folders, which minimize deterioration processes. This includes acid-free paper, folders and boxes, as well as chemically stable plastics. Here are some more specific tips for storing your archives:

Caring for paper archives 

Paper will deteriorate no matter what you do, but know that if you manage its use, light, temperature, pollution and humidity, then you have done the best that you can do.

If the document is fragile or faded, then you should type out the contents of the document on an acid-free sheet of paper.

Use a No. 1 pencil to write information on the document.

If you choose to use a scrapbook, then do not use magnetic storage albums, glue or tape. Use acid-free paper and acid-free scrapbooking corners, and also identify items on the scrapbook page, not on the document.

Photocopy newspaper clips onto acid-free paper and keep the original away from other documents.

Remember that newsprint after 1880 is generally made of highly acidic wood pulp and is quite fragile. Make sure to photocopy this type of newsprint.

Preserving films, videos and audiocassettes

Keep them in a cool dry place to protect them from heat, light, humidity and pollution.

Have a digital copy made for viewing, but save the original because technology will change and the original film will have the clearest contrast.

Place original film on polypropylene film core in a polypropylene canister; avoid metal cans and reels for long-term storage.

If the recording contains an oral history, then make a paper-based transcript. This transcript will last much longer than the tape or a digital copy will.

Protecting photographs

To provide long-term protection, make sure that storage containers, folders and envelopes are durable and chemically stable.

Use a No. 1 pencil when writing on the back of a photo. If necessary, then photocopy the photograph onto acid-free paper and label the copy.

When handling a photograph, wear gloves or hold at the edges.

If a photograph is matted, then remove the mat, unless it threatens to damage the original image. Many mats have a high acidity and will stain a photograph.

If a photograph is mounted, then do not attempt to remove the photograph — you may damage the image.

Make a negative if you do not have any of the originals. This allows nearly limitless reproduction without harming the photos.

Realize that color photographs and slides will fade no matter what you do. To slow down this process, store color photos together (not in the same folder as black-and-white photographs) in acid-free folders. Color photocopies have an even shorter life span.

Betty Weibel, APR
Betty Weibel, APR, is a principal in the Silver Anvil award-winning firm Yopko Penhallurick LLC based in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.


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