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The Storage Unit Archive: Organizing Third World Newsreel’s 40-year-old Collection

April 23, 2013 Blog, Projects No Comments

Saturday, April 6, Activist Archivists members and friend (thanks Joe!) came together with Third World Newsreel’s J.T. Takagi, Herman Lew, and MIAP intern Dan Finn for the first phase of our assessment project: shelf building!

Our task was simple enough: remove all boxes from storage unit, build two shelves, put all boxes back in storage unit. We anticipated an all day event. With seven of us, we managed to knock it out in five hours with some afternoon to spare.

From Left to Right: Herman, Marie, Kelly, JT, Dan, Joe

From Left to Right: Lindy, Marie, Kelly, Dan, Joe

A majority of our pre-planning for this day’s work involved searching for shelves. When considering shelving for our purposes, we all had to let go of the notion of “archival shelving.” Here are examples of what generally qualifies. Ideal points to consider:

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  • 16-gauge steel open shelving

  • 18” deep (standard archive boxes won’t hang over)

  • 36” wide

  • lowest shelf 6” off the ground

  • Wood (particle board, plywood), paint and shellacs give off acidic gases

  • Wood sealed with inert polymer finish can be passable with magnetic media

Aside from shelves made from a material that will not rapidly deteriorate and infect the items you are storing, you want to be able to fully maximize shelf space, meaning they should allow for a significant amount of weight. Be it books, manuscripts, film or video; in bulk you’re looking at hundreds of pounds.

Based on the measurements we took in the storage space, archival shelving would have cost nearly $1000. Considering that the shelves we need are for a temporary storage unit, it was easier to acquiesce the ideal. We chose Shelflinks Custom Storage System shelves. The price fell under $500, and included the shelving links, lumber and delivery. These shelves satisfied our most important need for sturdy storage of heavy boxes, and can be sealed in the near future. They would not and should not be implemented in an archive, but they are fantastic in allowing for easy size customization, simple transport, and assembly not requiring top notch carpentry skills.

Ideally, film would be stored in separate cans, and video in proper cases directly on to shelves:

Film in archival cans on archival shelves.

Video in cases on archival shelves

This allows for air circulation to keep microenvironments (i.e. mold!) from developing, and allows easy access to material. Ideals are pretty, but in the real world archiving situation we are dealing with, our main concern was the safety of people going in to the storage space (heavy boxes can fall) and the need to keep excessive weight off of material whenever possible (heavy boxes crush or warp fragile formats). Currently material is stored in medium to large cardboard moving boxes, also not ideal due to degradation issues, but not apocalyptic.

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Other important work materials to consider: work gloves (for wood handling and dusty boxes), optional face masks (no one bothered), a broom, power drills, a table saw (used on the floor), flat bed carts (available at storage facility), a wet/dry vacuum, and doughnuts.

Herman and Joe take no prisoners

We managed to get the oldest, most fragile boxes onto the shelves, but were a little disappointed at how many boxes remained off of the shelves. This overestimation can be avoided if you know in advance the size of all of the boxes you are dealing with. Regardless, working in the unit is safer, and our next phase in which we will perform an inventory and replace worn out boxes will be easier. Just by moving boxes in and out of the space, we got a clearer sense of the type of content we are likely to be dealing with, and even how to group the content by subject, which makes grant writing easier.

Cue 80s montage

We also learned that it is best to check for outlets in the area, as well as if those outlets have power before assuming you will be able to use a table saw. Acrobatics and a long extension cord may remedy this, but also keep in mind that you may not be allowed to use said discovered outlets.

Totally legal and safe improvisation...

Though if you’re lucky, storage space employees won’t discover your activities until you are almost finished. Return their lack of hostility with a nice once over with a shop-vac in the space you used. And share the leftover doughnuts.

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