SAA 2015: Forum, Archival and Special Collections Facilities: Guidelines for Archivists, Librarians, Architects, and Engineers

In advance of the 2015 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, roundtable and section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

Guest Author: Michael Barera, Archivist at Texas A&M University-Commerce

The forum’s facilitator began with a bit of background: the 2009 archival facility guidelines, which are currently still on sale, but now under revision. The facilitator is looking for a large number of people to vet the forthcoming document, and noted that some of the issues with the new standard include the push to make archives more environmentally friendly (and other expenses in building or renovating facilities), the fact that the new standard will be a joint US/Canadian effort, one of the largest challenges at present is environmental conditions (especially cool and cold storage), one complaint that we have too many standards (instead of just one standard), the fact that they will be incorporating materials from the Image Permanence Institute (IPI), and that the museum community doesn’t like the terms “cool” and “cold”.

At this point, the facilitator opened up the session to the audience, individual members of whom made the following points:

  • Stephen F. Austin’s case of being kept out of architectural plans, for which the facilitator gave the advice to “get involved as early as possible and learn as much as possible”. Still, SFA had problems with air conditioning units being installed over their archives, which leaked water into the stacks. Another bit of advice for them was to cite NARA’s standards.
  • The next comment was about a roof replacement and advice about telling contractors and builders what collections are worth and that they are irreplaceable.
  • For lowering carbon footprints, a number of archivists are looking at what LEED says and also documentation in the world of museums, which in general is better than in archives. Te IPI is also a key resource: their new research shows that minor fluctuations aren’t too bad, while extremes need to be avoided. Also, it is recommended to tell engineers that you want flexible systems that allow you to make changes easily.
  • The next question is about sea level rise caused by global warming; the responsibility really rests on each individual institution, though some institutions have actually moved because of these concerns. A key recommendation is “don’t ignore the fact that funds are available for this sort of thing”. Furthermore, there is also Project ARCC, a group of archivists working on climate-change-related issues, as well as local cultural organization groups working on this, for example one in Seattle.
  • An architect who specializes in building archival buildings (and other cultural heritage buildings) spoke up and lamented that many architects don’t really understand archives. He also extolled the virtues of lifecycle costing. In related advice, a recommendation was given to check out dpcalc.org (the Dewpoint Calculator; try to get it under 40%); “it gives you a chance to adjust…without creating problems”.
  • The Texas State Archivist brings up state funding and potential resources available for SFA.
  • NREL.gov and EERE.gov have a lot of information about good building ideas regarding energy efficiency, and simple little tips.
  • Next is a specific question about a split HVAC system that isn’t working, necessitating dehumidifiers, but even that still isn’t enough; the recommendation is to keep the constant relative humidity in the 35-45% range, and to check out the IPI Sustainability webinars.
  • Another participant makes a good point: “Standards are great, but there are always compromises.”
  • The next question regared prioritization between formats: “if you can’t change your spaces, you can often rearrange your collections” in an optimal way. In relation to this, IPI has done work on low-cost, practical passive solutions with high return on investment (ROI). The standards committee is trying to address it, but isn’t sure how to (yet).
  • Also noted is that a real advantage of standards is knowing where you want to be at; if you can get closer, you’re at least moving in the right direction.
  • The facilitator notes that the forthcoming guide will address earthquakes only in terms of building standards, but this could change; one idea is upgrading the collections area (only) by one “earthquake zone”. Furthermore, a participant suggests that those who work in archives in fracking zones should also look at earthquake standards.
  • The reality, according to one participant: most archives don’t have dedicated spaces and/or control of HVAC.
  • The next person to speak makes a suggestion to create an executive summary for “important facilities managers” who don’t have the time or desire to read the whole document.
  • Another person argues that subcontractors are generally more difficult to deal with than architects.
  • More good advice: “You can’t work in archives with a blind eye to facilities.”
  • The next bit of advice shared is to try to educate those in construction (especially project managers) from the beginning; from time to time, “you need to put your foot down” (“and know what you want”). Sometimes, it is important to “bring them in and show them your treasures”.
  • The next point is an assertion that this is “all a balance…but do the best you can do.”
  • One person is moving into an old hazmat facility: “what should we do first?” The recommendation is to “make your list”, ask around, and do a cost analysis on what makes sense to do first; a risk assessment approach could also be useful.
  • The next question regards the perceived opposition between style and functionality in the guide; the guide has a whole chapter on materials and finishes, complete with a list of “no’s”.
  • One person notes that, from personal experience, a discussion on materials with other stakeholders was really useful and beneficial.
  • Another person, who works in facilities, notes that it is important to know as much about your facility as possible and have the manuals, especially in the case of smaller institutions.
  • The next point is that data logging is really important, especially if you’re thinking about a new facility.
  • Next up is a strong recommendation for building information modeling, an advanced and dynamic 3D technology.
  • Another climate change-related issue is mentioned, this time a Union of Concerned Scientists/National Parks Service joint report entitled “National Landmarks at Risk”, which is free and downloadable online. The facilitator notes that the new facilities guide will also be downloadable, and that it is supposed to be out this year, but it is behind schedule for a number of reasons; the creators have asked SAA for a nine-month extension.
  • Another key point to emerge is that there are important regional variations in recommended practice, which also have impacts on buildings themselves.
  • The next question is about cultural institutions not being informed about municipal building projects that affect them, which can really have adverse impacts on such institutions. The forthcoming guide doesn’t really address this, but it could; the simple advice is to just ask (however, you need to find the right people, especially in planning departments and departments of public works, and maybe also the building inspector; further advice is to not hesitate to offer tours and food to stakeholders).
  • The next point concerns an operating budget, and whether there are any hidden costs; according to the facilitator, there are a number, including monitoring equipment and disaster recovery. There is a related recommendation for water mist [fire suppression] systems to at least be considered if not installed. Another person wants to see a pros/cons assessment of fire suppression technologies in the new edition of the guide. The facilitator admits that the group writing the guide is having a hard time keeping up with standards, and maybe because of this will go with a three-ring binder approach that allows for more future flexibility.
  • One person then suggests that it may be beneficial to define and explain LEED to archivists, although the facilitator notes that the guide already has this. Building on this, another person describes “a pendulum swing away from LEED” in archives, while the architect notes that the “baseline archives building for LEED isn’t fair” (“the energy part is tough”). Related to this is a recommendation for Tom Willstead’s book on LEED.
  • The very last point of the session is an interesting problem regarding a largely unconsidered and interesting problem in archives: shelter in place capabilities.
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