Comprehensive Preservation Survey (Manuscript and Historical Photograph Collections)


The extensive historical manuscript and photograph collections held in Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC) at the Washington State University Libraries have been acquired throughout the existence of the university, a period of over 100 years. Archival processing of these collections began somewhat later, and took place over a period of many decades during which standards and best practices for processing and preservation of archival materials were being developed and revised.

A wide variety of problems with physical conditions of collections were observed anecdotally as materials were being used by staff and patrons, and damaged items were treated. Although a systematic approach to preservation treatment of rare books had been in place for several years, until the 2004 survey was conducted there had been no program or plan for identifying and prioritizing preservation needs of manuscript and photograph collections.

In order to systematically assess the physical condition of processed manuscript and photograph collections, and to develop a prioritized plan for preservation treatment, MASC librarians planned and executed a comprehensive survey during 2004. The survey results were compiled and analyzed, and a prioritized treatment plan created, during 2005.


Financial support for this project was obtained through the Washington Preservation Initiative, a competitive program funded through the federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and administered by the Washington State Library.

Survey Extent


Approximately 4400 linear feet of processed manuscripts were surveyed; this represents all of the manuscript collections in MASC with the exception of approximately 26 collections excluded for various reasons, and separately-housed oversize materials. For collections with 20 or fewer boxes, each box was examined; for collections with 21 or more boxes, a sample of boxes was examined.

Two large collections were identified as particularly high priorities for box-level surveys and treatment during the grant period: the Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company Records, 1888-1963 and the Walt Horan Papers, 1940-1964.

Box-level survey form (Excel Document)


120 collections comprising approximately 500,000 images were surveyed. For collections with 14 or fewer boxes, each box was examined; for collections with 15 or more boxes, a sample was examined, with special care to examine all formats (glass negatives, celluloid negatives, prints, etc.).

Survey Activities


Survey forms were developed for manuscripts and photographs. These were filled in by hand as each collection was examined; one form was completed for each collection surveyed.

Survey form: Manuscripts (Word Document)

Survey form: Photographs (Word Document)

Treatment “on-the-fly”

For many small manuscript collections (generally not more than one folder of material), minor preservation treatments were done during the course of the survey. Examples of these treatments are re-foldering, interleaving with acid-free paper, and fastener removal. Collections identified as needing immediate attention or more complex treatment were referred to the MASC in-house conservation laboratory.

Intellectual access

Access tools for manuscript collections, including catalog records and online finding aids (collection guides), were reviewed for accuracy and completeness during the survey. This was a time-consuming step, but the librarian determined that it was most efficient to review these tools as the collections were being physically examined. Errors were corrected or noted for later correction, and in a few cases access tools could not be found for particular collections. Some were flagged for possible reprocessing; access tools were created for the others.

Treatment Recommendations

MASC librarians reviewed the completed survey forms, and made recommendations for preservation treatments needed for each collection. For manuscript collections, a priority rating was assigned based on physical condition and significance of collection content.

Preservation treatment recommendation form (Excel Document)

Compilation, Analysis, and Plan Creation

The data gathered on the survey forms, and the recommended preservation treatments, were input into an Access database developed in-house. Reports were generated based on priority ratings and categories of treatment recommended. The result was a prioritized preservation plan, which will be executed as departmental resources permit, or as additional external funding for collection preservation is obtained.

Sample: Database record for individual collection (jpg image. Right click on link and choose “save target as”. Print for best results.)

Sample: Database Report (jpg image. Right click on link and choose “save target as”. Print for best results.)

Treatment program

During 2005, many high-priority collections have been treated by MASC staff and temporary employees; this work is ongoing.

Preservation Treatment Form (Word Document)

Photo Gallery

Unexpected Benefits

In addition to the expected benefits of this systematic approach to assessing the physical condition of MASC collections, there were also unexpected benefits. These included greatly enhanced familiarity with the content of collections; the identification of collections needing reprocessing; and the rediscovery of forgotten “treasures,” including a Papal Bull from 1216.

Survey and analysis tools

Survey form: Manuscripts (Word Document)

Survey form: Photographs (Word Document)

Preservation treatment recommendation form (Excel Document)

Preservation Treatment Form (Word Document)

Sample: Database record for individual collection (jpg image. Right click on link and choose “save target as”. Print for best results.)

Sample: Database Report (jpg image. Right click on link and choose “save target as”. Print for best results)

Related publication:

Gunselman, Cheryl. “Assessing Preservation Needs of Manuscript Collections with a Comprehensive Survey.” American Archivist 70, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2007): 151-169.


The Washington State University Libraries gratefully acknowledge the financial support for preservation projects offered through the Washington Preservation Initiative, which provided substantial funding for this project during 2004 and 2005. The co-project directors on these two grant cycles were Cheryl Gunselman, Manuscripts Librarian, and Trevor Bond, Special Collections Librarian.

Gudrun Aurand, MASC conservator, assisted with the survey, and provided valuable advice and preservation treatment expertise throughout the project.

MASC also thanks the following temporary employees who participated in the project:

Survey: Saadia Hassan, Graduate Assistant (2004)

Access database development; preparation of reports and assistance with prioritized plan: Tara Murphy, Intern (2005)

Data entry: Tammy McRae (2005)

Preservation treatment:
Duncan Shea (2004-2005)
Katrina Paxton (2004-2005)
Andrew McCarthy (2005)
Amy Canfield (2005)
Mark Gottschalk (2005)
Tammy McRae (2005)
Mark O’English (2005)
Tyler Evans (2005)
Kris Stenson (2005)